Tagged Education (K-12)

Three Feet or Six? Distancing Guideline for Schools Stirs Debate

Some public health officials say it’s time for the C.D.C. to loosen its social distancing guidelines for classrooms, but the idea has detractors.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is clear and consistent in its social distancing recommendation: To reduce the risk of contracting the coronavirus, people should remain at least six feet away from others who are not in their households. The guideline holds whether you are eating in a restaurant, lifting weights at a gym or learning long division in a fourth-grade classroom.

The guideline has been especially consequential for schools, many of which have not fully reopened because they do not have enough space to keep students six feet apart.

Now, spurred by a better understanding of how the virus spreads and a growing concern about the harms of keeping children out of school, some public health experts are calling on the agency to reduce the recommended distance in schools from six feet to three.

“It never struck me that six feet was particularly sensical in the context of mitigation,” said Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health. “I wish the C.D.C. would just come out and say this is not a major issue.”

On Sunday, Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said on CNN that the C.D.C. was reviewing the matter.

The idea remains contentious, in part because few studies have directly compared different distancing strategies. But the issue also boils down to a devilishly difficult and often personal question: How safe is safe enough?

“There’s no magic threshold for any distance,” said Dr. Benjamin Linas, a specialist in infectious diseases at Boston University. “There’s risk at six feet, there’s risk at three feet, there’s risk at nine feet. There’s risk always.” He added, “The question is just how much of a risk? And what do you give up in exchange?”

The origins of six feet

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends three to six feet of social distancing in schools, while the World Health Organization recommends just one meter, or 3.3 feet.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends three to six feet of social distancing in schools, while the World Health Organization recommends just one meter, or 3.3 feet.Pete Kiehart for The New York Times

The origin of the six-foot distancing recommendation is something of a mystery. “It’s almost like it was pulled out of thin air,” said Linsey Marr, an expert on viral transmission at Virginia Tech University.

When the virus first emerged, many experts believed that it was transmitted primarily through large respiratory droplets, which are relatively heavy. Old scientific studies, some dating back more than a century, suggested that these droplets tend not to travel more than three to six feet. This observation, as well as an abundance of caution, may have spurred the C.D.C. to make its six foot suggestion, Dr. Marr said.

But that recommendation was not universal. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends three to six feet of social distancing in schools, but the World Health Organization recommends just one meter, or 3.3 feet.

And over the last year, scientists have learned that respiratory droplets are not the primary mode of coronavirus transmission. Instead, the virus spreads mostly through tiny airborne droplets known as aerosols, which can travel longer distances and flow through rooms in unpredictable ways.

Data also suggests that schools appear to be relatively low-risk environments; children under 10 seem to transmit the virus less readily than adults.

In recent months, there have been hints that six feet of distancing may not be necessary in school settings. Case rates have generally been low even in schools with looser distancing policies. “We know lots of schools have opened up to less than six feet and have not seen big outbreaks,” said Dr. Jha.

In a 2020 analysis of observational studies in a variety of settings, researchers found that physical distancing of at least one meter substantially reduced transmission rates of several different coronaviruses, including the one that causes Covid-19. But they found some evidence to suggest that a two meter guideline “might be more effective.”

“One of the really important data points that has been missing is a direct head-to-head comparison of places that had implemented three feet of distance versus six feet of distance,” said Dr. Elissa Perkins, the director of emergency medicine infectious disease management at Boston University School of Medicine.

A natural experiment

A hand sanitizer station in a Catholic school in Boston in January.Allison Dinner/Reuters

Dr. Perkins and her colleagues recently conducted such a comparison by taking advantage of a natural experiment in Massachusetts. Last summer, the state’s education department issued guidelines recommending three to six feet of distancing in schools that were planning to reopen in the fall. As a result, school policies varied: Some districts imposed strict, six-foot distancing, whereas others required just three. (The state required all staff members, as well as students in second grade and above, to wear masks.)

The researchers found that the social distancing strategy had no statistically significant effect on Covid-19 case rates, the team reported in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases last week. The study also found that Covid-19 rates were lower in schools than in the surrounding communities.

The authors say the findings provide reassurance that schools can loosen their distancing requirements and still be safe, provided they take other precautions, like enforcing universal mask wearing.

“Masking still appears to be effective,” said lead investigator Dr. Westyn Branch-Elliman, an infectious diseases specialist at the VA Boston Healthcare System. “And so, provided we have universal masking mandates, I think it’s very reasonable to move to a three-foot recommendation.”

Not everyone finds the study so convincing. A. Marm Kilpatrick, an infectious disease researcher at the University of California, Santa Cruz, said that the school-district data was too noisy to draw firm conclusions from. “It doesn’t really allow you to get, I think, an answer that you can feel really confident in,” he said.

The study’s authors acknowledged that they could not rule out the possibility that increased distancing provided a small benefit.

With aerosol transmission, safety generally increases with distance; the farther the aerosols travel, the more they diluted become. “It’s like being close to a smoker,” Dr. Marr said. “The closer you are, the more you’re going to breathe in.”

And distance aside, the more people there are in a room, the higher the odds that one of them will be infected with the coronavirus. A six-foot rule helps reduce that risk, said Donald Milton, an aerosol expert at the University of Maryland: “If people are six feet apart, you can’t pack them in. And so, it’s safer just because it’s less dense.”

Masks and good ventilation do a lot to reduce the risk. With these measures in place, the difference between three and six feet was likely to be relatively small, scientists said. And if Covid-19 is not very prevalent in the surrounding community, the absolute risk of contracting the virus in schools is likely to remain low, as long as these protections are in place.

“We can always do things to reduce our risks further,” Dr. Marr said. “But at some point, you reach diminishing returns, and you have to think about the costs of trying to achieve those additional risk reductions.”

Debate and diminishing risks

“Provided we have universal masking mandates, I think it’s very reasonable to move to a three-foot recommendation,” said one infectious disease specialist.Rosem Morton for The New York Times

Some experts say that a small increase in risk is outweighed by the benefits of fully reopening schools. “Trying to follow the six-foot guideline should not prevent us from getting kids back to school full time with masks, with at least three-foot distancing,” Dr. Marr said.

Others said it was too soon to loosen the C.D.C. guidelines. “Ultimately, I think there could be a place for this changing guidance,” Saskia Popescu, an infectious disease epidemiologist at George Mason University, said in an email. “But it’s not now, when we are struggling to vaccinate people, we’re still seeing over 60,000 cases a day and we’re trying to not reverse the progress we’ve made.”

Even proponents of changing the guideline say that any shift to looser distancing will have to be done carefully, and in combination with other precautionary measures. “If you’re in an area where there’s not a strong tendency to rely on masks, I don’t think it would be wise to extrapolate our data to that environment,” Dr. Perkins said.

Moreover, officials risk muddying the public health messaging if they establish different standards for schools than for other shared spaces. “I’ve evolved on this,” Dr. Linas said. “Last summer I felt like, ‘How are we going to explain to people that it’s six feet everywhere except for schools? That seems not consistent and problematic.’”

But schools are unique, he said. They are relatively controlled environments that can enforce certain safety measures, and they have unique benefits for society. “The benefits of school are different than the benefits of movie theaters or restaurants,” he said. “So I’d be willing to assume a little bit more risk just to keep them open.”

How Children Read Differently From Books vs. Screens

The Checkup

How Children Read Differently From Books vs. Screens

Scrolling may work for social media, but experts say that for school assignments, kids learn better if they slow down their reading.

Credit…Cristina Spanò

  • March 16, 2021, 11:20 a.m. ET

In this pandemic year, parents have been watching — often anxiously — their children’s increasing reliance on screens for every aspect of their education. It can feel as if there’s no turning back to the time when learning involved hitting the actual books.

But the format children read in can make a difference in terms of how they absorb information.

Naomi Baron, who is professor emerita of linguistics at American University and author of a new book, “How We Read Now: Strategic Choices for Print, Screen and Audio,” said, “there are two components, the physical medium and the mind-set we bring to reading on that medium — and everything else sort of follows from that.”

Because we use screens for social purposes and for amusement, we all — adults and children — get used to absorbing online material, much of which was designed to be read quickly and casually, without much effort. And then we tend to use that same approach to on-screen reading with harder material that we need to learn from, to slow down with, to absorb more carefully. A result can be that we don’t give that material the right kind of attention.

For early readers

With younger children, Professor Baron said, it makes sense to stick with print to the extent that it is possible. (Full disclosure: As the national medical director of the program Reach Out and Read, I believe fervently in the value of reading print books to young children.) Print, she said, makes it easier for parents and children to interact with language, questions and answers, what is called “dialogic reading.” Further, many apps and e-books have too many distractions.

Dr. Jenny Radesky, a developmental behavioral pediatrician who is an assistant professor of pediatrics at Michigan Medicine C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital in Ann Arbor, said that apps designed to teach reading in the early years of school rely on “gamification meant to keep children engaged.” And though they do successfully teach core skills, she said, “what has been missing in remote schooling is the classroom context, the teacher as meaning maker, to tie it all together, helping it be more meaningful to you, not just a bunch of curricular components you’ve mastered.”

Any time that parents are able to engage with family reading time is good, using whatever medium works best for them, said Dr. Tiffany Munzer, also a developmental behavioral pediatrician at Mott Children’s Hospital, who has studied how young children use e-books. However, Dr. Munzer was the lead author on a 2019 study that found that parents and toddlers spoke less overall, and also spoke less about the story when they were looking at electronic books compared with print books, and another study that showed less social back-and-forth — the toddlers were more likely to be using the screens by themselves.

“There are some electronic books that are designed really well,” Dr. Munzer said, pointing to a study of one book (designed by PBS) that included a character who guided parents in engaging their children around the story. “On the other hand, there’s research that suggests that a lot of what you find in the most popular apps have all these visually salient features which distracts from the core content and makes it harder for kids to glean the content, harder for parents to have really rich dialogue.”

Still, she said, it’s not fair to expect parents to navigate this technology — it should be the job of the software developers to design electronic books that encourage language and interactions, tailored to a child’s developmental level.

With preschoolers as opposed to toddlers, Professor Baron said, “there are now beginning to be some smarter designs where the components of the book or the app help further the story line or encourage dialogic reading — that’s now part of the discussion.”

Dr. Radesky, who was involved in the research projects with Dr. Munzer, talked about the importance of helping children master reading that goes beyond specific remembered details — words or characters or events — so a child is “able to integrate knowledge gained from the story with life experience.” And again, she said, that isn’t what is stressed in digital design. “Stuff that makes you think, makes you slow down and process things deeply, doesn’t sell, doesn’t get the most clicks,” she said.

Parents can help with this when their children are young, Dr. Radesky said, by discussing the story and asking the questions that help children draw those connections.

For school-age kids

“When kids enter digital spaces, they have access to an infinite number of platforms and websites in addition to those e-books you’re supposed to be reading,” Dr. Radesky said. “We’ve all been on the ground helping our kids through remote learning and watching them not be able to resist opening up that tab that’s less demanding.”

“All through the fall I was constantly helping families manage getting their child off YouTube,” Dr. Radesky said. “They’re bored, it’s easy to open up a browser window,” as adults know all too well. “I’m concerned that during remote learning, kids have learned to orient toward devices with this very skimmy partial attention.”

Professor Baron said that in an ideal world, children would learn “how to read contiguous text for enjoyment, how to stop, how to reflect.”

In elementary school, she said, there’s an opportunity to start a conversation about the advantages of the different media: “It goes for print, goes for a digital screen, goes for audio, goes for video, they all have their uses — we need to make kids aware that not all media are best suited to all purposes.” Children can experiment with reading digitally and in print, and can be encouraged to talk about what they perceived and what they enjoyed.

Dr. Radesky talked about helping children develop what she called “metacognition,” in which they ask themselves questions like, “how does my brain feel, what does this do to my attention span?” Starting around the age of 8 to 10, she said, children are developing the skills to understand how they stay on task and how they get distracted. “Kids recognize when the classroom gets too busy; we want them to recognize when you go into a really busy digital space,” she said.

For older readers

In experiments with middle school and university students asked to read a passage and then be tested on it, Professor Baron said, there is a mismatch between how they feel they learn and how they actually perform.

Students who think they read better — or more efficiently — on the screen will still do better on the test if they have read the passage on the page. And college students who print out articles, she said, tend to have higher grades and better test scores. There is also research to suggest that university students who used authentic books, magazines or newspapers to write an essay wrote more sophisticated essays than those just given printouts.

With complex text in any format, slowing down helps. Professor Baron said that parents can model this at home, sitting and relaxing over a book, reading without rushing and perhaps generally de-emphasizing speed when it comes to learning. Teachers can be trained to help students develop “deep reading, mindful, focusing on the text,” she said.

For example, students can be trained in digital annotation, highlighting but also making marginal notes, so that they have to slow down and add their own words. “We’ve known that for years, we’ve done it with print, we have to realize that if you want to learn something from a digital document, annotate,” she said.

There are also studies that suggest that reading comprehension is better onscreen when readers page down — that is, when they see a page (or a screen) of text at a time, and then move to the next, rather than continuously scrolling through text.

Seeing information on the page may help a student see a book as something with a structure, rather than just text from which you grab some quick information.

No one is going to take screens out of children’s lives, or out of their learning. But the more we exploit the rich possibilities of digital reading, the more important it may be to encourage children to try out reading things in different ways, and to discuss what it feels like, and perhaps to have adults reflect on their own reading habits. Reading on digital devices can motivate recalcitrant readers, Professor Baron said, and there are many good reasons to do some of your reading on a screen.

But, of course, it’s a different experience.

“There’s a physicality,” Professor Baron said. “So many young people talk about the smell of books, talk about reading print as being ‘real’ reading.”

Alabama Could Allow Yoga in Public Schools After a 28-Year Ban

After a 28-Year Ban, Alabama Could Allow Yoga in Public Schools

“It’s just exercise,” said Jeremy Gray, a state lawmaker whose bill is making its way through the Legislature. But some people still say the practice has no place in the classroom.

A yoga class in Birmingham, Ala. In 1993, parents in the state were raising concerns not only about yoga but also about hypnotism and “psychotherapeutic techniques.”
A yoga class in Birmingham, Ala. In 1993, parents in the state were raising concerns not only about yoga but also about hypnotism and “psychotherapeutic techniques.”Credit…Audra Melton for The New York Times

  • March 13, 2021, 9:57 a.m. ET

For nearly three decades, teaching yoga in Alabama’s public schools has been forbidden by the state’s school board.

One lawmaker, Jeremy Gray, has been trying to change that since 2019. He made progress on Thursday, when the state’s House of Representatives passed a bill that would override the ban. The bill, which was approved by a vote of 73 to 25, will soon be taken up by the Senate.

Mr. Gray, a Democrat representing Opelika, has taught and practiced yoga for years. He said that while some conservative legislators in the state might have opposed yoga because of its associations with Hinduism, officials on both sides of the aisle had been slowly warming to the idea.

“Most of the senators that I’ve talked to are OK with it,” Mr. Gray said. “A lot of people in their districts have reached out to them, and a lot of their wives actually do yoga. So I think it has a good chance of passing.”

His legislation would override a 1993 school board regulation that says that “school personnel shall be prohibited from using any techniques that involve the induction of hypnotic states, guided imagery, meditation or yoga.”

The yoga bill is far from the only issue on the docket for Alabama lawmakers. Mr. Gray also has other legislative priorities, such as providing clean water for schools and improving the state’s policies on expunging criminal records.

But because it hits at the intersection of some combustible issues — religion, culture and children’s education — the yoga bill has captured outsize news media attention. This year and last year, it was covered by multiple local, state and national news outlets, including The New York Times.

Eric Johnston, a legal adviser for the Alabama Citizens Action Program, or ALCAP, a church-supported group that holds substantial influence in the Legislature, said the group intended to fight the bill when it reaches the Senate.

Yoga is “a very important part of the Hindu religion,” he said. “As such, it does not need to be taught to small children in public schools.”

Mr. Gray pointed out that his bill would allow schools and students to make their own decisions about whether to offer or participate in yoga classes. It also says that public schoolteachers cannot say “namaste,” a greeting often used in yoga, or any kind of chant.

“You have to compromise in order to get that bipartisan support,” he said.

Mr. Gray came across the issue largely by chance. In a speech at a public high school in Auburn, Ala., in 2019, he mentioned that yoga had helped him stay grounded while juggling responsibilities.

After his remarks, teachers told him that they had been unable to arrange exercises for their students. “That’s how I learned it was banned,” Mr. Gray said.

Around the time of the ban in 1993, parents in the state were raising concerns not only about yoga but also about hypnotism and “psychotherapeutic techniques.” According to an April 1993 article in The Anniston Star, one mother in Birmingham said her child had brought a relaxation tape home from school that made a boy “visibly high,” The Montgomery Advertiser reported.

But for Mr. Gray, a former football player, yoga has long been a useful part of his exercise regimen. The gentle stretches helped him cool down after practices, he said, while the breathing exercises strengthened his lungs. (That, he added, may have helped him recover quickly from a bout of Covid-19 last year.)

He introduced his first bill to challenge the yoga ban in 2019, but it quickly failed. His second attempt passed the House in 2020 but was put on the back burner because of the pandemic.

This time, Mr. Gray is optimistic about the bill’s prospects. He said a Republican senator, Tom Whatley, had agreed to carry the legislation forward in the Senate, where, like the House, Republicans have a majority. (Mr. Whatley did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment on Friday.)

Mr. Johnston, the adviser for ALCAP, which opposes the yoga bill, said he did not oppose the practice of yoga. “I think yoga is widely accepted, and even some Christian churches have yoga classes,” he added.

But he framed the practice as inseparable from Hinduism, and therefore subject to the constitutional separation of religion and state. “You cannot have any kind of religious activities in elementary schools,” he said.

Mr. Gray disagreed. “It’s just exercise,” he said. “We do it all the time in the gym. It’s not a big deal.”

How to Help a Teen Out of a Homework Hole

Adolescence

How to Help a Teen Out of a Homework Hole

The more students fall behind in the pandemic, the less likely they are to feel that they can catch up.

Credit…Marta Monteiro
Lisa Damour

  • Feb. 26, 2021, 2:33 p.m. ET

Pandemic school is taking its toll on students, especially teens. A recent study, conducted by NBC News and Challenge Success, a nonprofit affiliated with the Stanford Graduate School of Education, found that 50 percent more kids in high school report feeling disengaged from school this year than last. In December, Education Week reported that schools were seeing “dramatic increases in the number of failing or near-failing grades” on report cards.

A major symptom of school disengagement is not turning in homework, a problem that can easily snowball. The further students fall behind, the more overwhelmed they often become and the less likely they are to feel that they can catch up.

The good news is that finding out about missing homework is a first step to helping kids get back on track. You just need to keep a few considerations in mind.

Empathy will get you further than anger

At this point in the pandemic, finding out that your child has let schoolwork slide may trigger an angry response. Everyone is worn down by the demands of pandemic life and many parents are already operating on their last nerve. Getting mad, however, is likely to cause kids to adopt a defensive or minimizing stance. Instead, try to be compassionate. What students who have fallen behind need most are problem-solving partners who want to understand what they are going through.

If you’re having trouble summoning your empathy, bear in mind that there are many good reasons a student could fall off pace this year. For instance, Ned Johnson, a professional tutor and co-author of the book “The Self-Driven Child,” noted that most teens have very little experience managing email, which is now a main source of information for those in remote or hybrid arrangements. “We know how overwhelmed we as adults are by email. Imagine not being comfortable with it, and then suddenly getting everything — from Zoom links to assignments — that way.”

Some students learning remotely may also have unreliable broadband service; others may miss key information because their attention is split between the teacher on the screen and distractions at home.

“Many adults are having the exact same issues,” said Ellen Braaten, a psychologist and the executive director of the Learning and Emotional Assessment Program at Massachusetts General Hospital. “They are really productive when they can physically be at work, but may find themselves less attentive in the unstructured environment of working from home.”

Even teens who are attending school in person and using familiar systems for tracking assignments may be having a hard time managing their work now. The mental skills that help us stay organized — commonly called executive functioning — are being undermined by psychological stress, which is unusually high among today’s teens.

Work together to diagnose the problem

Finding out that your child is in academic trouble can tempt you to jump to solutions. It’s best, however, to properly diagnose the problem before trying to address it. Liz Katz, assistant head for school partnership at One Schoolhouse, an online supplemental school, suggested looking into the reasons students fall behind at school. Some don’t know what they’re supposed to be doing, others know and aren’t doing it, and still others “are doing their best and just can’t meet expectations.”

As you talk with a teenager about where things have gone off the rails, be kind, curious and collaborative. “This isn’t about you being in trouble or getting off the hook,” you might say. “It’s simply about figuring out what’s going wrong so we can solve the right problem.”

Students who are struggling to keep track of what’s expected of them may need to reach out to their teachers, either for clarification about specific assignments or for general guidance on where and when they should be looking for information about homework. As a parent or caregiver, you can coach them on how to approach their instructors. Start by pointing out that teachers are almost always eager to lend support to students who seek it. You can also offer to give feedback on a draft email to an instructor explaining where the student got lost and what they have already tried.

“For many students, the ability to ask for help is not fully formed,” said Ms. Katz, “or it can feel like an admission that they’ve done something wrong. Normalizing and praising self-advocacy is so important.”

For students who know what they’re supposed to do but aren’t doing it, other approaches make sense. They may be having a hard time sustaining motivation and need support on that front, or they may be swamped with commitments, such as caring for younger siblings, that make it impossible to complete their schoolwork. Here, parents and students will want to work together to make a realistic plan for addressing the biggest priorities in light of these circumstances. This might mean coming to an agreement about where the teen’s energies should be directed or exploring what additional support might be put in place.

In some cases, academic problems may be linked to issues with mental health. If there’s a question of whether a student is suffering from depression or anxiety; using drugs; or exhibiting any other significant emotional or behavioral concern, check in with the school counselor or family doctor for a proper assessment. Treatment should always take precedence over schoolwork. “If you’re depressed,” Dr. Braaten said, “no amount of executive function coaching is going to help, because that’s not the issue.”

Some students have subtle learning or attention disorders that became an issue only when school went online. Under regular conditions, said Mr. Johnson, instructors can notice when a student is tuning out and bring back his or her attention in a gentle way. Unfortunately, “Teachers really can’t do that effectively on Zoom.” If this is a concern, parents should consider checking in with teachers or their school’s learning support staff to get their read on the problem and advice for how to move forward.

Step back to see the big picture

“We all need to be easier on ourselves,” Dr. Braaten said, “and to sort through what students really need to do and what they don’t.” Well-meaning parents might hope to motivate students by emphasizing the importance of high grades, but that can make it harder for kids to recover from a substantial setback.

As students start to work their way back, give some thought to how comprehensive their turnaround needs to be. Do they really need to get equally high grades in every class? Could they instead direct their energy toward getting square with the courses they care about most? Could they work with their teachers to agree upon trimmed-down assignments for partial credit? According to Mr. Johnson, “Lowering expectations, for now, can actually help kids to get back on track.”

Dr. Braaten also noted that much of what students gain from school is not about content, but about learning how to solve problems. Engaging teens in constructive conversations to figure out how they fell behind can be an important lesson unto itself. “Having a 16-year-old who understands, ‘When I’m stressed, this is how I react,’” says Dr. Braaten, “may put us further ahead in the long run.”

In any school year, students learn a great deal beyond academic content. This year, more than most, might be one where students gain a deep understanding of how they respond when feeling overwhelmed and how to ask for help or rebound from setbacks — lessons that they will draw on long after the pandemic is gone.

Navigating My Son’s A.D.H.D. Made Me Realize I Had It, Too

Navigating My Son’s A.D.H.D. Made Me Realize I Had It, Too

Experts say some symptoms, especially in women, are mistaken for other conditions such as mood disorders or depression.

Credit…Natalia Ramos

  • Feb. 25, 2021, 2:25 p.m. ET

I heard my 7-year-old son’s cries of frustration loud and clear despite the closed door between us. Seconds earlier, I’d left him stationed at a desk in my bedroom, hoping he’d complete at least a portion of his virtual school assignments without me at his side while I left to wash the dishes.

“This is so BORING,” he groaned. Finishing each of his math problems required enduring an animated character’s long-winded ovations and cheers. The work was easy for him, but the system didn’t allow him to zip through it. Pulling up a chair, I sat with him in solidarity as he finished up.

Remote learning is daunting for most parents; it’s particularly thorny when your child has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. As I tried to guide my son through his online lessons over the course of the pandemic, I began to see parallels between his struggles and my own. While hyperactivity was never an issue for me, we had many other traits in common: impulsivity, distractibility, lack of organization and low frustration tolerance — all key signs of A.D.H.D.

Primary school was easy for me; from third grade on, I was enrolled in gifted classes and earned straight A’s. Nonetheless, I recall many tear-laden homework sessions where exasperation over a tricky math problem threw me into emotional overload. During study sessions, I often became disinterested and zoned out, rereading sections of text until I could focus enough to absorb the information. I attributed my difficulties to character flaws: I was spacey and forgetful, a master procrastinator lacking drive and ambition.

Though I received an academic scholarship and entered college with a 4.2 grade point average and 15 credits from Advanced Placement classes, my performance at university was subpar. Lacking structure, it was tough for me to stick to any semblance of routine. In large lecture halls where I was an unknown in a sea of students, I floundered. I changed my major five times and eventually lost my scholarship. I never imagined an underlying neurological disorder was at play.

People who have A.D.H.D. but who do relatively well in school often don’t get diagnosed until later in life, said Lidia Zylowska, associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Minnesota Medical School and author of “Mindfulness for Adult A.D.H.D.” She said the expression of A.D.H.D. symptoms can change as life gets more complex, becoming more overwhelming as responsibilities increase in adulthood. For those who have advantages such as intelligence and family support, “school may be a place where you thrive. But when you don’t have that support, whether it’s in college, or you get your first job,” or if you become a parent, Dr. Zylowska said, “that’s when the impairment really starts showing up.”

No one in my family (nor my husband’s) had been given an A.D.H.D. diagnosis, yet research suggests a strong genetic component to the disorder. “We’ve known for many years that A.D.H.D. runs in families; it’s not just a childhood disorder,” said Mark Stein, director of A.D.H.D. and related disorders at Seattle Children’s Hospital. He said 20 percent to 30 percent of children with A.D.H.D. will have another family member who has it. “A big part of it is genetics, but it’s also awareness. Once you’re aware of what A.D.H.D. is, you’re more likely to recognize it in others,” he said.

Dr. Stein said it’s not unusual for parents to realize they have A.D.H.D. after their child is diagnosed, as in my case. “That’s a real common pathway,” he said. “A child has symptoms and problems and is being evaluated, and then the parent for the first time looks at their life and views it from the frame of, ‘Well, maybe I have this, and this is why I had those difficulties.’”

As a 3-year-old, my son was evaluated by a school psychologist because of hyperactive, disruptive behavior in preschool. He was formally given an A.D.H.D. diagnosis at age 5; by then I’d become his tireless advocate, collaborating with our school district to ensure he was set up for success in the classroom. In 2020, I reached out to my doctor about my concerns about my own symptoms and received a preliminary diagnosis of A.D.H.D; I’ll undergo a comprehensive neurological evaluation this spring.

When I was in elementary school in the ’80s, no one ever brought up the possibility that I had A.D.H.D. Experts say that’s not uncommon. Because men tend to exhibit more disruptive symptoms than women, they’re far more likely to be given diagnoses early on, said Russell Barkley, a psychiatry professor at Virginia Commonwealth University Medical School and author of “12 Principles for Raising a Child With A.D.H.D.

Dr. Stein noted: “For 10 or 15 years now we’ve been talking about how it’s not identified in females, and that it’s often missed, and even though we’ve improved somewhat it’s still much more likely to be missed in females, especially in moms.”

Research shows girls with A.D.H.D. tend to internalize their struggles rather than acting out. “Girls tend to be a little bit more inattentive and less hyperactive,” Dr. Barkley said. “If they’re disruptive, it’s mainly talking too much and socializing, whereas the boys, if they’re disruptive, it tends to be more reactive emotion and aggression, as well as defiance and oppositional behavior.”

Dr. Stein said the increasing stressors and external demands of motherhood can worsen A.D.H.D. symptoms. “I think of A.D.H.D. women as typically suffering in silence,” he said. They may seek care for something like being demoralized or having low self-esteem, or feeling overwhelmed, he said. “It’s often assumed this is a mood disorder or depression.” He added, “We’re treating the effects and the aftereffects” of A.D.H.D., “but not the underlying cause.”

I’ve had anxiety for most of my adult life; experts say the longer A.D.H.D. goes untreated, the more likely people are to experience comorbidities like anxiety, depression, substance abuse, and bulimia/binge eating. About 30 percent of children with A.D.H.D. have an anxiety disorder, a statistic that increases in adulthood. While many women do have depression and anxiety, Dr. Barkley said, “It’s just that it’s being picked up as the primary problem without looking behind the curtain, so to speak, to see what else might be there that could also be contributing to these difficulties.”

Dr. Zylowska said treatment tools for adult A.D.H.D. are very similar to those for children, but newly diagnosed adults often have an additional problem of struggling with feelings of self-doubt and shame. “You sort of have this long-life experience of getting in your own way, of having good intentions, but not being able to deliver, and that can be really demoralizing,” she said. Part of the treatment is to “help develop this less judgmental, less negative view of yourself, understanding A.D.H.D. as a neurobiological difference and developing self-acceptance and self-compassion, which can really be important,” Dr. Zylowska said.

Mindfulness-based therapy is a helpful self-regulation tool for working through feelings of inadequacy and shame, and developing self-compassion, she said.

Medication can play a role in managing A.D.H.D. symptoms for many people, but Dr. Stein said it’s part of an individualized treatment plan that may also include good nutrition and sleep. While A.D.H.D. can be a big problem for kids in school, adults often have more control about choosing to be in an environment that suits the way their brains work. “It’s less of a problem if you have the right fit with your occupation,” he said, because it’s easier to focus if you find a career you’re passionate about.

This diagnosis has been eye-opening for me. My treatment plan will most likely include medication, but my doctor is waiting for data from my scheduled neurological evaluation before she prescribes me anything. There are so many options when it comes to A.D.H.D. medications; testing will ensure that I receive the most effective one based on my individual needs. Experiencing the improvement medication may have on my daily functioning will allow me to make a more informed decision if and when the time comes to medicate my son. Thus far, it hasn’t been recommended for him.

Meanwhile, I’m able to more deeply empathize with my son when he is frustrated; after all, I’ve been there too.

Heidi Borst is a freelance writer and mother of one based in Wilmington, N.C.

The Influence of a Perfect Teacher

Credit…Isabel Seliger

The Checkup

The Influence of a Perfect Teacher

Perhaps because I had a teacher who made reading aloud into ceremony, ritual and compelling drama, I grew up to find my cause in pediatricians’ promoting reading aloud at checkups.

Credit…Isabel Seliger

  • Feb. 15, 2021, 5:00 a.m. ET

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” was published in 1964, so when my teacher read it aloud to my fourth-grade class, it was only a couple of years old. She had a good eye for a classic-to-be, did my fourth-grade teacher.

And she made a ceremony out of reading: She would light a special reading candle while she read us the day’s chapter, and then we would blow it out together, and she would say, “There go your wishes up in the smoke — may they all come true.”

Nowadays, I guess, you wouldn’t be allowed to have a candle in a classroom. I’m not even sure I should tell you about the magic pills: She had some jars of candies — red hots, I remember in particular, and M&M’s — that were labeled for different subjects, so that if you needed help with math, you could ask for a “math pill.” (Yes, I know, it wouldn’t be allowed now, between the worries about sugar and pill culture — but I do have to tell you, those math pills worked.)

As you can tell, in fourth grade, I had the perfect teacher. Her name was Miriam Marecek — and I am writing this because she died last October, after a long and difficult struggle with multiple sclerosis, but of course, I wish I had written it sooner, when she was still here to read it.

Actually, she became Dr. Miriam Marecek in the 1970s when she earned a doctorate in education, but in my mind, she was always Miss Marecek, because I had spent fourth grade in Miss Marecek’s class and it had changed my life.

I had lucked into what was probably the perfect school for me; my education had been jump-started during a year my family spent in rural India, in which I attended a convent school. By the time I was 6, the missionary nuns, by dint of rigorous pedagogy (and the fear of corporal punishment) managed to teach me the reading and writing and arithmetic that I would have learned in the first several grades of an American school.

When we returned from India, my parents sent me to the Agnes Russell School, a “lab” school associated with Teachers College at Columbia (my father taught at Barnard), where they were promised that I wouldn’t have to learn to read all over again; it was a “progressive” school and I would be able to go at my own rate.

I spent four very happy years in that school. I have pleasant memories of student teachers trying out all kinds of new educational techniques on us (hands up, everyone who learned math on Cuisenaire rods — and how about those SRA cards for reading?).

It was a small school and, as I remember it, full of faculty children whose educational trajectories had been interesting in one way or another; my mixture of convent education and familiarity with the Hindu deities whose ceremonies my anthropologist father had been studying in West Bengal fit right in with the intellectual odds and ends that my classmates had accumulated as they had trailed their parents from graduate school to research trip to junior faculty post.

We had a terrific school library where you could go read on the couch if you got your work done early, and a terrific school librarian, always ready with book recommendations. We also had classroom white rats who probably came our way via the college science labs, and big gallon jars in which we raised mealworms. But fourth grade was without question the best, because in fourth grade, as I said, I had the perfect teacher.

Miriam Marecek found me again, a couple of decades later; she read something that I had published and called me up. I know what I said when she asked if I remembered her, because I wrote a story about it at the time: “Miss Marecek! The reading candle! ‘A Wrinkle in Time!’ As I said, she had a good eye for a future classic.

Miriam Marecek was born in Prague, during the Second World War. She later wrote about her childhood in a memoir, “Escape From Prague.” Her mother was a debutante and an opera singer and later a teacher, and her father, she wrote, was a “journalist, scholar and diplomat” who was in danger as a dissident. In 1948, the U.S. ambassador helped the family get to the United States.

When I was in fourth grade, I don’t think I understood that teachers had past histories, or, indeed, that they would go on to live complicated and individual lives after I moved on to the next grade. It was only decades later — after that phone call — that I learned that Miss Marecek had gone on to graduate school, had become a professor of education, and that children’s literature was still her great love and her specialty.

I didn’t know how lucky I was, of course, to have a teacher who could choose such amazing books, and make reading aloud into ceremony, ritual and compelling drama, and I didn’t know I would grow up to find my cause in pediatrics working with Reach Out and Read, a national literacy organization through which doctors talk with parents at checkups about the importance of reading aloud and provide them with books. When I reconnected with that teacher, she became an early member of the advisory board, and helped choose the books.

I’d like to draw a moral here about teachers, and how young children take what their teachers have to offer with a kind of matter-of-fact greediness, without stopping to marvel at what is being transmitted, to wonder how the knowledge was acquired, or to examine the teacher’s own passions.

And given the times we’re living through, I’d like to say something in appreciation of all the teachers who are managing to convey their passions remotely this year, and maybe to mourn the days that children are missing in what would have been exciting or even magical classrooms. But really, all I want to say is, when you get lucky with a teacher, you really get lucky.

Miriam Marecek spent the rest of her life deeply engaged with children’s literature — teaching it to college students and graduate students in education, advising school districts on books and literacy, maintaining a website as the “Children’s Book Lady,” corresponding with authors and illustrators — in her memoir she reproduces communications from Maurice Sendak and Uri Shulevitz.

After that phone call, I learned that she lived not far from me, in a house filled (of course) with children’s books, in the town of Winchester. I never quite got over the feeling that it was a magical house, as it had been a magical classroom. She sent books to my children, and to my brother’s children. I met her own three children, and when her daughter eventually became a pediatrician, I felt a strong sense of pride and delight.

In the last part of her life, as multiple sclerosis gradually took her mobility, staying in that house became her cause. Thanks to her family and to devoted friends, she managed it, tended by a succession of remarkable caretakers, reading stories to her grandchildren in person and long-distance, and continuing to read and to think and to connect.

I’m so glad she found me, when I was a grown-up, so I got to know more of her story and spend more time with her. I miss her, and I wish I’d written this when she was still here to read it. But here’s to Miriam Marecek, and to teachers, and all that they can mean, and to everything good that a classroom can hold.

C.D.C. Draws Up a Blueprint for Reopening Schools

C.D.C. Draws Up a Blueprint for Reopening Schools

Amid an acrid national controversy, the agency proposed detailed criteria for returning students to classrooms.

Students returning to P.S. 189 in Brooklyn in December, when New York City reopened its schools after rising infection rates had forced a closure.
Students returning to P.S. 189 in Brooklyn in December, when New York City reopened its schools after rising infection rates had forced a closure.Credit…Victor J. Blue for The New York Times
  • Feb. 12, 2021, 2:14 p.m. ET

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Friday urged that K-12 schools be reopened and offered a comprehensive science-based plan for doing so speedily, an effort to resolve an urgent debate roiling in communities across the nation.

The new guidelines highlight the growing body of evidence that schools can openly safely if they put in effect layered mitigation measures. The agency said that even when students lived in communities with high transmission rates, elementary students could receive at least some in-person instruction safely.

And middle and high school students, the agency said, could attend school safely at most lower levels of community transmission — or even at higher levels, if schools put into effect weekly testing of staff and students to identify asymptomatic infections.

“CDC’s operational strategy is grounded in science and the best available evidence,” Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the C.D.C., said on Friday in a call with reporters.

The guidelines arrive in the middle of a debate that is already highly fraught. Some parents whose schools remain closed are becoming increasingly frustrated, and public school enrollment has declined in many districts across the country. Education and civil rights leaders are despairing about the harms being done to children who have not been in classrooms for nearly a year.

And teachers’ unions in some places are fighting against reopening schools before teachers can be fully vaccinated.

The Biden administration has made a high priority of returning children to classrooms, and the new recommendations try to carve a middle ground between school officials as well as some parents who are eager to see a resumption of in-person learning and powerful teachers’ unions resisting a return to school settings that they regard as unsafe amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Whether the guidelines will persuade powerful teachers’ unions — allies of Mr. Biden — to support teachers returning to classrooms remains to be seen. In advice that may be disappointing to some unions, the document states that, while teachers should be vaccinated as quickly as possible, teachers do not need to be vaccinated before schools can reopen.

The document embraces the often-repeated mantra that schools should be the last settings to close in a community and the first to reopen. But that has been followed nowhere in the country, and these guidelines have no power to force communities where transmission remains high to take steps, such as closing nonessential businesses, to decrease it.

As a result, some teachers’ unions will continue to argue that the overall environment remains unsafe to return to in-person classrooms.

A majority of districts in the country are offering at least some in-person learning, and about half of the nation’s students are learning in classrooms. But there are stark disparities in who has access to in-person instruction, with urban districts, which serve mostly poor, nonwhite children, more likely to be closed than nonurban ones.

Those are some of the places where education experts are most concerned about the consequences of students being out of school for such a prolonged period. There is growing evidence that some students who are learning remotely are falling significantly behind academically.

And, while data are still very limited, many doctors and mental health experts report seeing unusually high numbers of children and adolescents who are depressed, anxious or experiencing other mental health issues.

At the same time, many parents in urban districts, particularly poor and nonwhite parents, remain hesitant to send their children back to school even if given the option, out of fear that their children can get sick and possibly bring home the virus.

Schools have reopened partially or are starting to reopen in New York City, Chicago, Boston and other cities. But conflict between elected officials who support reopening and teachers’ unions seems likely to continue in places like Los Angeles, San Francisco and Portland, despite the new guidelines.

School district leaders have long asked for clearer guidelines from the federal government on how they should make decisions during the pandemic. The C.D.C.’s advice comes as a relief to many experts who have been frustrated at the low priority given to schools in local reopening plans.

“It’s not saying if you open schools again,” said Helen Jenkins, an infectious disease expert at Boston University and an adviser to the public schools district in Cambridge, Mass. “It’s saying, ‘You are going to open schools again, and this is how to do it,’ which I appreciate.”

The agency’s approach struck the right balance between the risks and the benefits of in-person instruction, said Jennifer Nuzzo, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

“We have accumulated a tremendous amount of harms from not having schools open,” Dr. Nuzzo said. “This document is important in trying to couch the risks in relation to those harms, and try to paint a path forward.”

The C.D.C. encouraged elementary schools to remain open regardless of virus levels in the surrounding community, pointing to evidence that young students are least likely to be infected or to spread the virus. Middle schools and high schools should switch to virtual learning only when community transmission of the coronavirus reaches the highest level, the agency said.

The agency also prioritized in-person instruction over extracurricular activities like sports and school events. In an outbreak, these activities should be curtailed before classrooms are closed, officials said.

Some experts raised concerns about the strategy.

Most school districts are in communities where viral transmission is already at or close to levels that the agency has deemed to be the highest risk, for example. Yet many have kept schools open without experiencing outbreaks of the virus.

“Most of the United States is sending their kids to school at above that cutoff,” said Dr. Jacqueline Grupp-Phelan, chief of pediatric emergency medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. “I’m not sure it’s going to make an impact on them, because they’re doing it and they’ve done it safely.”

Teachers and supporters demonstrating this month outside Samuel Gompers Public School in Philadelphia. Notably absent from the C.D.C. guidance are recommendations on improving ventilation in schools.
Teachers and supporters demonstrating this month outside Samuel Gompers Public School in Philadelphia. Notably absent from the C.D.C. guidance are recommendations on improving ventilation in schools.Credit…Matt Rourke/Associated Press
Cecilia Krizmanich, left, a teacher at Joyce Kilmer Elementary in Chicago, helped set up Marvin Araujo-Avilas’s computer on the first day of in-person classes on Thursday. Only two students showed up. Credit…Taylor Glascock for The New York Times

Notably absent from the agency’s guidance were recommendations on improving ventilation in schools, an important safeguard now that the coronavirus is known to be carried aloft in tiny airborne particles.

In one short paragraph, the C.D.C. suggested that schools open windows and doors to increase circulation, but said they should not be opened “if doing so poses a safety risk or a health risk.”

“C.D.C. gives lip service to ventilation in its report, and you have to search to find it,” said Joseph Allen, an expert on building safety at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston. “It’s not as prominent as it should be.”

The section on ventilation does link to more information online. But all of that is buried, relative to a misguided emphasis on cleaning surfaces like outdoor playground equipment, said Linsey Marr, an expert in airborne transmission of viruses at Virginia Tech.

“I think the balance is incorrect in putting so much emphasis on cleaning surfaces and almost no emphasis on cleaning the air, given what we know about how the virus spreads,” she said.

Ideally, the C.D.C. should also have mentioned high-quality masks or double-masking, Dr. Allen said. (The agency on Thursday released new advice for masking that included the use of two masks at once.)

Other preventive measures the C.D.C. recommended for schools are those it has previously endorsed: universal masking of staff and students; physical distancing; hand-washing and hygiene; cleaning; and contact tracing, in combination with isolation for those who have tested positive and quarantine for those who have been exposed to the virus.

The agency advised that schools refer all symptomatic students, teachers, staff and close contacts for diagnostic testing, and that schools put in place routine weekly testing of students and staff, except when community transmission is low. But the expense and logistics of widespread screening would be a heavy burden for school districts.

The C.D.C. skated lightly over physical distancing. “The agency’s previous recommendation for distancing suggested that schools have students attend on alternating schedules, in order to reduce the number of students in classrooms and hallways.”

The new guidance instead says schools should put in effect physical distancing “to the greatest extent possible,” but requires it only when community transmission of the virus is high. The softer emphasis makes the guidelines more feasible for school districts to follow, Dr. Nuzzo said.

“A lot of communities have pursued hybrid approaches, or in some cases just not opened, because they haven’t been able to figure out that spacing issue,” she said. The guidelines give the impression that maintaining at least six feet of distance between students is ideal, “but the whole attempt to bring kids back to school doesn’t have to break down over that,” she added.

The six-feet rule has been embraced as an orthodoxy, however, by many educators. Becky Pringle, president of the National Education Association, the country’s largest teachers union, said there should be no wiggle room on physical distancing or other mitigation strategies.

A socially distanced gym class in Provo, Utah.Credit…George Frey/Getty Images
A student entered Joyce Kilmer Elementary in Chicago, where schools are reopening after protracted disagreements with the teachers’ union.Credit…Taylor Glascock for The New York Times

“We need detailed guidance from the C.D.C. that doesn’t leave room for political games,” she said. “This is an airborne disease. Masks must be mandated, social distancing must be in place and proper ventilation is a must.”

As it had previously, the C.D.C. recommended using two measures to determine the risk of transmission in the community: the total number of new cases per 100,000 people, and the percentage of positive test results over the previous seven days.

The agency established four risk levels whose thresholds do not significantly differ from previous recommendations, except that the data are evaluated over seven days instead of 14 — a change that may allow schools to respond more quickly to shifting virus prevalence in their communities.

Dr. Jenkins of Boston University said the percentage of positive tests can vary with how much testing a community is doing. And the highest levels of community spread defined by the agency — 10 percent positivity, and 100 cases per 100,000 people over the previous seven days — are too conservative, she and other experts said.

“I do worry that there might be an impact on unnecessarily delaying the opening for the middle- and high school students,” said Dr. Grupp-Phelan of the University of California, San Francisco.

She added that her hospital, in a region where most middle- and high schools are closed, had seen large increases in adolescents who were suicidal or had developed eating disorders.

President Biden has pledged to open the majority of K-8 schools within the first 100 days of his administration. But on Wednesday, the White House press secretary, Jen Psaki, said that the president had been referring to in-person teaching “at least one day a week.”

That goal is already in reach: A majority of districts are offering at least some in-person learning, and about half the nation’s students are reporting to classrooms. The divide often falls along political lines. Conservative areas are likely to have open schools, while in liberal cities and suburbs, where teachers’ unions are influential, schools are more likely to be operating remotely.

Many districts, particularly ones in the South and the middle of the country, have offered fully in-person instruction for some or all grades at times when virus levels have risen far above what the C.D.C. says is advisable.

According to the agency’s guidelines, the approximately one-third of schools that remain entirely virtual may be too cautious.

Students received hand sanitizer before entering P.S. 316 in Brooklyn in December.Credit…Anna Watts for The New York Times
Temperature checks at Joyce Kilmer Elementary in Chicago on Thursday.Credit…Taylor Glascock for The New York Times

If the new recommendations had been in place last fall, for example, San Francisco could have opened all of its schools for fully in-person instruction in mid-September (although the city may have chosen to close middle- and high schools as cases began climbing in November).

Today, according to the guidelines, San Francisco could open elementary schools in a hybrid mode, and is close to being able to open middle- and high schools in a hybrid mode.

Instead the city’s schools have been shuttered since the pandemic began, and the district has agreed to far more restrictive reopening standards with its union. Officials have set no date for bringing young children back to school, and have said they do not expect most middle- and high school students to return in person this year.

Rebecca Bodenheimer is a mother of a third-grader in Oakland, Calif., and an organizer of a parent group that has been pushing the city’s school district, which is currently all virtual, to set a date for reopening.

The C.D.C.’s guidelines sounded reasonable, Ms. Bodenheimer said. But she was not sure they would sway a debate that was emotional for many.

“The research and data have been piling up about the fact that schools can open safely, and those people who are just only operating on unfounded fear — I don’t see a lot of them coming around,” she said.

Some local unions continue to fight reopening efforts, demanding that teachers be vaccinated before returning to classrooms. The new guidance recommended that states immunize teachers in early phases of the rollout but said access to vaccines should “nevertheless not be considered a condition for reopening schools for in-person instruction.”

Vaccinating teachers is very effective at cutting down cases in both teachers and students in a model of transmission in high schools, said Carl Bergstrom, an infectious diseases expert at the University of Washington in Seattle. “It should be an absolute priority,” he said.

Still, he added, “I can certainly see why they chose not to make it a prerequisite, because it may not be something that can be done in time to have schools open.”

Teachers’ unions have also asked for stringent protections regarding hygiene and air quality inside school buildings.

In Boston, for example, air quality was a major point of contention in reopening negotiations between the school district and teachers’ union. The agreement that paved the way to students returning to schools called for air purifiers in classrooms and a system for testing and reporting air quality data.

Ms. Pringle, the union president, said her members continue to be concerned about aging school buildings that do not include modern ventilation systems. Those schools were more likely to be located in lower-income and nonwhite communities hit hardest by the pandemic.

Many teachers have “no trust” that school administrators will put strong virus safety measures in place or will be given the funding to do so, Ms. Pringle said: “That’s why you see educators rising up across the country and saying, ‘At least give us the vaccine.’”

I’m a Disabled Parent. It Took a Pandemic to Let Me Join the P.T.A.

I’m a Disabled Parent. It Took a Pandemic to Let Me Join the P.T.A.

My chronic illness made it hard to volunteer at my kids’ school. Now I can serve on the executive board of the P.T.A. without leaving my bed.

Credit…Jialun Deng

  • Feb. 2, 2021, 5:00 a.m. ET

In a year of intense isolation, I’ve never felt more connection to my children’s school.

I have a chronic illness that has kept me from volunteering in the highly engaged P.T.A. at my children’s New York City public school. In a strange paradox, for many chronically ill parents like me, the pandemic has brought new opportunities to become substantially involved in our children’s lives and schools.

With a background in teaching and educational reform, I’d spent most of my life in classrooms. I’d always assumed I’d be an active participant in my two children’s learning. Initially, I was — when my first child was 2, I created a cooperative playgroup and later joined a more established group, where I served on the admissions committee. Then, when my older child entered pre-K, I got sick.

I went from a vibrant, engaged woman to a person who clung to her home, and often her bed, as if it were a life raft. Some mornings, despite 10 hours of sleep, I’d wake plagued by dizziness, feeling like I’d been hit by a truck. Eventually I was diagnosed with myalgic encephalomyelitis (M.E.), more commonly known as chronic fatigue syndrome, a disease that impacts between 836,000 and 2.5 million Americans, with women being afflicted at four times the rate of men, leaving the most severely ill completely bed-bound.

The first few years of my illness were the most challenging. On good days, I could muddle through short family events in my children’s classrooms, but on bad days it took everything in me to drag myself one block to after-school pickup, timing the trek so I’d have to wait a minimal time at the gate. Volunteering was out of the question.

In addition to frequent meetings, the P.T.A. at my kids’ school holds numerous social and fund-raising events. I couldn’t even muster the energy to attend these as a participant, let alone assist in organizing. The annual P.T.A. board elections were a difficult reminder that though I had much to contribute, my illness kept me from getting involved.

Last spring, when the world went online in the pandemic, my children’s school, like so many, did its best to pivot. But even with the commitment and energy of the school community, I’d be hard pressed to say it thrived. I knew the P.T.A. was going to be heavily involved in plans for the fall, so I reached out to see if I could help. There were conversations about everything from the flipped classroom model to improving the feedback loop between frustrated parents and overwhelmed teachers. Brainstorming solutions lit me up.

In the fall, the P.T.A. presidents asked if I’d consider joining the executive board as co-vice president of publicity and communications, teaming up with another parent I liked and respected. The P.T.A. leaders told me they had a new vision for the organization. In addition to the ubiquitous fund-raising, they wanted a major push toward improving communications and building community in a landscape that made both challenging. The new mission, the role and working with the other parent appealed to me. Still, I wavered.

One of the cardinal symptoms of M.E. is post-exertional malaise, where physical and cognitive effort leads to a flare-up. Pacing, or monitoring energy expenditure, is a critical part of symptom management. While the severity of my illness had decreased through a combination of treatment, pacing and luck (that summer I’d even been swimming with my kids and on a few short hikes), I worried that overcommitting could catapult me back. But because I could do everything virtually from my house, even from my bed if need be, I took a chance and said yes.

Since October my co-vice president and I have collaborated on our school newsletter, planned a social-justice movie night, and after the chat in one P.T.A. meeting became problematic, helped develop procedures for more effective communication during virtual meetings. In addition, we’re serving as liaisons between a parent-led advocacy group, school administration, and an external group that will be providing training to teachers and parents on how to more effectively address issues of race and racism both at home and at school.

I am not alone in appreciating this unexpected silver lining of the pandemic. In an online group for parents with M.E., run by the #ME Action Network, I encountered several other parents who also credit Zoom for allowing them access to their children’s school in a new way. For Holly Latham, from Jackson, Tenn., who self-describes as “barely hanging on by my fingernails,” it was as basic as being able to attend a meeting virtually to discuss an individualized education program, or I.E.P., for her child who has special needs, instead of struggling to get there physically.

Before the pandemic, Marthe Schmitt, a 51-year-old mother of one from St. Louis, Mo., wished to be more involved in her 8-year-old daughter’s school, but couldn’t: “I was always hesitant to commit to something and then not be able to physically show up.” This year though, she dove in, serving as social-media coordinator and working with her husband to update the school’s bylaws and make them more inclusive. “M.E.’s a very isolating disease, but being on the board has made me feel more connected and less disenfranchised,” Ms. Schmitt said.

Elin Daniel, a 42-year-old mother of one from Bothell, Wash., has moderately severe M.E. and is able to leave the house only a few times a week. “When school was in-person, just getting ready to attend an event would exhaust me and I’d always have a flare-up a day or two after,” she said. But since her children’s school went virtual, she’s joined her P.T.A. board as fund-raising chair, which has improved her mood and self-esteem. “I so rarely feel useful,” Ms. Daniel said. “It feels nice to contribute to the community and set an example for my daughter.”

For parents with chronic illnesses, the ability to be involved in our children’s lives isn’t something we take for granted. Mary Wu, a 41-year-old former teacher from Los Angeles and mother of three, only recently became ill but feels this deeply. Before her diagnosis, she and her 15-year-old daughter had been involved with National Charity League, an organization dedicated to leadership development and philanthropic work such as volunteering at food banks, cleaning up beaches and providing healthy snacks to underfunded schools.

“It was a great way to spend time with my daughter while teaching her to give back,” Ms. Wu said. “But after the onset of my illness, there’s no way I could have done it in person anymore.” Luckily, the charity league’s pivot to online meetings and virtual service has allowed the Wus to continue, fulfilling some of their service hours by sewing face masks for a local organization dedicated to helping women with breast cancer.

“I want something positive to come from all this,” Ms. Wu said. “I hope in the future, organizations still provide access to parents that can’t be there physically.”


Heather Osterman-Davis is a writer, filmmaker and mother of two in New York City.

Amid One Pandemic, Students Train for the Next

Amid One Pandemic, Students Train for the Next

Researchers have banded together to find safe, virtual ways to teach the principles of microbiology and epidemiology.

Teresa Bautista, a student at the High School for Environmental Studies in Manhattan, collecting goose dropping samples at Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx.
Teresa Bautista, a student at the High School for Environmental Studies in Manhattan, collecting goose dropping samples at Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx.Credit…Christine Marizzi/BioBus
Katherine J. Wu

  • Jan. 21, 2021, 5:00 a.m. ET

On a crisp afternoon in November, Teresa Bautista ventured into Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx, N.Y., on the lookout for feces. It didn’t take long for Ms. Bautista, 17 — and, to her chagrin, her white Puma shoes — to hit some serious pay dirt.

Speckled all across the park’s grass was the greenish glint of goose droppings, which Ms. Bautista eagerly swabbed and swirled into a tubeful of chemicals. “This was my first time digging into poop,” she said. “It was really fun.”

Ms. Bautista was after more than just bird excrement. Teeming within it, she hoped, were swarms of infectious viruses ready to spill their genetic secrets and, perhaps, help young scientists like her stop future pandemics.

Over the next few months, Ms. Bautista and four other New York area high school students will continue to gather samples from the city’s birds as a part of the Virus Hunters program, hosted by the nonprofit science outreach organization BioBus. Their goal is to catalog the flu viruses that often lurk in urban fowl, some of which might have the potential to someday hop into humans.

The surveillance program, which was developed in partnership with virologists at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, is one of several outreach efforts that have emerged in recent years to equip young scientists with hands-on experience in outbreak preparedness — a quest that has only gained urgency since the new coronavirus started its tear across the globe.

For many months to come, Covid-19 will continue to shutter schools and thwart attempts to gather. The changes have forced educators and researchers to change their teaching tactics. But several groups have met the challenge head on, not merely weathering the pandemic’s inconveniences but transforming them into opportunities for scientific growth.

In Cambridge, Mass., a team of computational biologists designed an outbreak simulation that eerily portended the stealthy spread of the coronavirus and is now fighting the spread of Covid-19 in real-time. In Tucson, Ariz., an immunologist has led an effort to include young, underrepresented scientists in microbiology research, even while the pandemic rages on.

And in New York, where Ms. Bautista is nurturing her love for virology, the effects of these efforts are already starting to take shape. That foraging trip to Van Cortlandt Park, she said, wasn’t just her first experience sampling feces: “It was the first time I actually felt like a scientist.”

Viruses of a feather

The Virus Hunters program was borne of a collaboration among BioBus, a wildlife rehabilitation center called the Wild Bird Fund and a group of researchers led by the Mount Sinai virologist Florian Krammer. Flu viruses are fairly cosmopolitan pathogens that are capable of jumping into a wide range of animals, including birds, and changing their genetic material along the way. Only some of these viruses pose a possible threat to people, Dr. Krammer said. But which ones? Researchers won’t know unless they check.

“There is very little information on influenza circulating in birds in New York City,” Dr. Krammer said. “I wanted to know what’s in my backyard.”

Florian Krammer of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.
Florian Krammer of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.Credit…Brittainy Newman/The New York Times

The project was awarded funding in early 2020, said Christine Marizzi, the chief scientist at BioBus. Weeks later, the coronavirus began to pummel the nation, and the team was forced to shift their plans. But Dr. Marizzi, who has long specialized in community-based research, was undeterred. For the remainder of the school year, the team will train its virus hunters through a mix of virtual lessons, distanced and masked lab work, and sample collection in the field.

It is a welcome distraction for Ms. Bautista, who, like many other students, had to switch to remote learning at her high school in the spring. “When the pandemic hit, I felt really helpless,” she said. “I felt like I couldn’t do anything. So this program is really special to me.”

School of outbreak

A thousand miles south, the students of Sarasota Military Academy Prep, a charter school in Sarasota, Fla., have also had to make some drastic changes since the coronavirus made landfall in the United States. But a select few of them may have entered 2020 a bit more prepared than the rest, because they had experienced a nearly identical epidemic just weeks before.

These were the graduates of Operation Outbreak, a researcher-designed outreach program that has, for the past several years, simulated an annual viral epidemic on the school’s campus. Led by Todd Brown, Sarasota Military Academy Prep’s community outreach director, the program began as a low-tech endeavor that used stickers to mimic the spread of a viral disease. With guidance from a team of researchers led by Pardis Sabeti, a computational biologist at Harvard University, the program quickly morphed into a smartphone app that could ping a virtual virus from student to student with a Bluetooth signal.

Sarasota’s most recent iteration of Operation Outbreak was uncanny in its prescience. Held in December 2019, just weeks before the new coronavirus began its rampage across the globe, the simulation centered on a viral pathogen that moved both swiftly and silently among people, causing spates of flulike symptoms.

The students in each simulation, partitioned into roles in government, public health, medicine, the military and the media, had to scramble to adapt and work together.

Bradford Walker, a junior at the academy, said he felt “really confident” going into the simulation as an eighth grader in 2017. “I was like, ‘We’ll get this together, no problem.’”

But the moment the campus’s outbreak began, “everything became a mess,” Mr. Walker said. Panic ensued; protests flared up; Nerf-gun shots were fired. Media personnel stalked and pestered Mr. Walker, who was acting as a government official. “It was very reminiscent of real life,” he said.

Students with the Sarasota Military Academy Prep “rescued” an ill student to triage as part of the school’s Operation Outbreak program.Credit…Becky Morris

Surrounded by a real pandemic, Mr. Walker often thinks back to his Operation Outbreak days. The program gave him an inkling of what a true viral outbreak might bring, he said. But he’s been unnerved by how wholly unprepared the world was for the coronavirus.

“The coronavirus is a wake-up call,” he said. “We have to be ready for this kind of stuff.”

Operation Outbreak was slated to run several in-person courses in 2020, until an actual pandemic intervened. But Dr. Sabeti and her colleagues have been building online tools, curriculums and games that can bring the lessons of their program to anyone who wants them.

After some careful finagling, the team was also able to engineer a handful of in-person outbreak simulations at college and high school campuses, using an updated version of their smartphone app. One simulation, run over Halloween weekend at Colorado Mesa University, followed a group of more than 350 students as they mingled during their normal routines. Unsurprisingly, an increase in interactions fueled the spread of the fictional virus — the same dynamic that was causing outbreaks of Covid-19 on campus that same semester.

The Operation Outbreak app has since grown more sophisticated. As part of the simulations, users can now toggle their epidemics to include diagnostic tests, masks, vaccines and other public health tools that curb and monitor the spread of infection. Eventually, schools and other organizations might be able to use the simulations as guides as they prepare to reopen for business.

“Beyond being an education tool, it’s a tool to get real-world data,” Dr. Sabeti said. “It’s an exercise in preparing public health teams.”

Expanding science’s reach

Isabel Francisco, left, a doctor of veterinary medcine at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, with Shatoni Bailey, a student at Central Park East High School, participating in BioBus’s virus hunters program.Credit…Christine Marizzi/BioBus

In Arizona, the microbiologist Michael D.L. Johnson has also taken advantage of the pivot to virtual learning prompted by the pandemic. Last summer, he led an effort to enroll 250 students from underrepresented backgrounds in the National Summer Undergraduate Research Program, or NSURP, matching them to more than 150 mentors with expertise in microbiology.

All the projects were remote. But, Dr. Johnson said, that obstacle likely also created opportunities for students who might otherwise have been excluded from science because of geographical or socioeconomic restrictions. And mentors who had old data sets lying around, or heavily computational projects that needed an extra pair of hands, found themselves partnered with eager new collaborators.

“The pandemic has made us adapt,” Dr. Johnson said. “We’re learning that there are some better ways of doing this.”

Some NSURP students even had the opportunity to better understand the coronavirus that had upended their summers. Emy Armanus, now a freshman at the University of California, Irvine, was paired with Suhana Chattopadhyay, an environmental health researcher at the University of Maryland School of Public Health, and spent the summer investigating how the use of nicotine products can worsen cases of Covid-19.

“It definitely made me more knowledgeable about the pandemic,” said Ms. Armanus, who is interested in pursuing a career in medicine. “This program was a great way to discover myself.”

The pandemic has altered just about every aspect of daily life. But Dr. Marizzi of BioBus said students should still feel empowered to engage in scientific discourse — something that sorely needs a new generation of diverse and enthusiastic voices.

For Ms. Bautista, the budding virologist in New York, the Virus Hunters program is bound to leave a lasting impression. Already, she has learned the basics of how viruses infiltrate hosts and how to coax intact genetic material out of cells — and, of course, to never again wear white shoes on a field survey.

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What Does a More Contagious Virus Mean for Schools?

What Does a More Contagious Virus Mean for Schools?

The coronavirus variant discovered in Britain is more easily spread among children, as it is among adults. Current safeguards should protect schools, experts said, but only if strictly enforced.

Children in Knutsford, England, returning to school this month following a Christmas break.
Children in Knutsford, England, returning to school this month following a Christmas break.Credit…Martin Rickett/PAMPC, via Associated Press
Apoorva Mandavilli

  • Jan. 14, 2021, 3:46 p.m. ET

It wasn’t until last fall that many parents started to breathe easier, as it became clear that elementary schools, at least, were not cesspools of infection with the coronavirus. But the alarming news of a more contagious version of the virus, first identified in Britain, revived those concerns.

Initial reports were tinged with worry that children might be just as susceptible as adults, fueling speculation that schools might need to pre-emptively close to limit the variant’s spread. But recent research from Public Health England may put those fears to rest.

Based on detailed contact-tracing of about 20,000 people infected with the new variant — including nearly 3,000 children under 10 — the report showed that young children were about half as likely as adults to transmit the variant to others. That was true of the previous iteration of the virus, as well.

“There was a lot of speculation at the beginning suggesting that children spread this variant more,” said Muge Cevik, an infectious disease expert at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland and a scientific adviser to the British government. “That’s really not the case.”

But the variant does spread more easily among children, just as it does among adults. The report estimated that the new variant is about 30 percent to 50 percent more contagious than its predecessors — less than the 70 percent researchers had initially estimated, but high enough that the variant is expected to pummel the United States and other countries, as it did Britain.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain had promised last year to do all he could to keep schools open. But he changed course in the face of soaring infections and buckling hospital systems, and ordered schools and colleges to move to remote learning. Other European countries put a premium on opening schools in September and have worked to keep them open, though the variant already has forced some to close.

In the United States, the mutant virus has been spotted only in a handful of states but is expected to spread swiftly, becoming the predominant source of infections by March. If community prevalence rises to unmanageable levels — a likely proposition, given the surge in most states — even elementary schools may be forced to close.

But that should be a last resort, after closures of indoor restaurants, bars, bowling alleys and malls, several experts said.

“I still say exactly what many people have said for the past few months — that schools should be the last thing to close,” said Helen Jenkins, an infectious disease expert at Boston University. Keeping schools open carries some risk, but “I think it can be reduced substantially with all the mitigations in place,” she said.

Reports of the new variant first surfaced in early December, and some researchers initially suggested that unlike with previous versions of the virus, children might be just as susceptible to the new variant as adults.

Researchers at P.H.E. looked at how efficiently people of various ages transmitted the variant to others. They found that children under 10 were roughly half as likely as adults to spread the variant.

Adolescents and teenagers between ages 10 and 19 were more likely than younger children to spread the variant, but not as likely as adults. (The range for the older group in the study is too broad to be useful for drawing conclusions, Dr. Cevik said. Biologically, a 10-year-old is very different from a 19-year-old.)

Over all, though, the variant was more contagious in each age group than previous versions of the virus. The mutant virus will result in more infections in children unless schools shore up their precautions, experts said.

“The variant is not necessarily affecting children particularly, but we know that it’s adding on more transmissibility to all age groups,” Dr. Cevik said. “We need to find ways to return these kids back to school as soon as possible; we need to use this time period to prepare.”

A schoolyard in Dortmund, Germany, this month. Fears of the new variant prompted Chancellor Angel Merkel to order schools closed.
A schoolyard in Dortmund, Germany, this month. Fears of the new variant prompted Chancellor Angel Merkel to order schools closed.Credit…Ina Fassbender/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel had vowed that schools would be the last thing to close during the second lockdown that began in November. Schools went to great lengths to keep in-person classes in session, requiring children to wear masks and opening windows to ensure better ventilation even as temperatures plummeted.

But fear of the variant’s spread prompted Ms. Merkel to keep schools closed following the holiday break at least through the end of January.

In France, where the new variant has not resulted in a surge of infections so far, schools reopened earlier this month after the winter break. France was not dealing with a particularly difficult epidemic, and health protocols put in place last September limited transmission in schools, Jean-Michel Blanquer, France’s education minister, has said.

The Italian government, too, has allowed not just elementary schools to open but also high schools, albeit at half capacity. Still, local leaders have implemented tighter restrictions, with some high schools slated to stay closed until the end of the month.

In the United States, the variant has only been spotted in a handful of states, and still accounts for less than 0.5 percent of infections. Schools remain open in New York City and many other parts of the country, but some have had to shut down because of rising virus infections in the community.

“Obviously, we don’t want to get to a point where it seems like we closed schools too late,” said Dr. Uché Blackstock, an urgent care physician in Brooklyn and founder of Advancing Health Equity, a health care advocacy group. “But at the same time, I think that we should try to keep our young children in school for as long as possible for in-person learning.”

It’s been clear for months what measures are necessary, Dr. Blackstock and other experts said: requiring masks for all children and staff; ensuring adequate ventilation in schools, even if just by opening windows or teaching outdoors; maintaining distance between students, perhaps by adopting hybrid schedules; and hand hygiene.

The new variant, while more contagious, is still thwarted by these measures. But only a few schools in Britain implemented them.

“When we look at what’s happened in the U.K. and think about this new variant, and we see all the case numbers going up, we have to remember it in the context of schools being open with virtually no modification at all,” Dr. Jenkins said. “I would like to see a real-life example of that kind of country or state or location, which has managed to control things in schools.”

There are some examples within the United States.

Erin Bromage, an immunologist at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, advised the governor of Rhode Island, as well as schools in southern Massachusetts, on preventive measures needed to turn back the coronavirus. The schools that closely adhered to the guidelines have not seen many infections, even when the virus was circulating at high levels in the community, Dr. Bromage said.

“When the system is designed correctly and we’re bringing children into school, they are as safe, if not safer, than they would be in a hybrid or remote system,” he said.

The school Dr. Bromage’s children attend took additional precautions. For example, administrators closed the school a few days before Thanksgiving to lower the risk at family gatherings, and operated remotely the week following the holiday.

Officials tested the nearly 300 students and staff at the end of that week, found only two cases, and decided to reopen.

“That gave us the confidence that our population was not representative of what we were seeing in the wider community,” he said. “We were using data to determine coming back together.”

The tests cost $61 per child, but schools that cannot afford it could consider testing only teachers, he added, because the data suggest the virus is “more likely to move from teacher to teacher than it is from student to teacher.”

In New York City, students and teachers are randomly tested, and have so far shown remarkably low rates of transmission within schools.

Dr. Blackstock has two children at an elementary school in Brooklyn, and said her son has not been tested all year. Even if the new variant brings a spike in cases, the city’s policy of closing a school if it has two unrelated infections is “too conservative,” she said.

If the number of cases skyrockets and the schools shut down more often, “then I would probably say, ‘This doesn’t feel right, let’s keep them home,’” she said. “But they’re going to be in school as long as I can possibly keep them.”

Emma Bubola contributed reporting from Milan, Melissa Eddy from Berlin, Constant Méheut from Paris and Benjamin Mueller from London.

For Parents, Every Day Is Bird School

Me, my wife, our teenager and our 5-year old, we knew nothing about birds before the lockdown sent us inside in March. Our cramped home was suburban-convenient before the pandemic hit, nestled a few blocks from a school we don’t go in and a train downtown we won’t ride, and now it is just small.

It was a bedroom short and had nothing a person could call work space beyond the dining room table even before it became our entire lives. But it did have windows, sunny and bright in the morning, that looked out on the worn patch of yard just outside so I bought a bird feeder and some cheap seed and mounted it just outside our dining room window. We needed a distraction.

The birds came in swarms, tiny brown ones at first that constantly pecked at each other over the absolute trash seed we’d put out. It was like we’d opened an avian fight club. Then came the cardinals, regal and red, and the goldfinches, a hallucinatory yellow. They all fought, too, but they were beautiful.

The 5-year-old kept telling us he’d seen a blue jay, but it would always fly off, he’d claim, when we turned around. We thought it was a way of getting attention after losing his preschool, his swim lessons, his friends — everything his tiny world encompassed — to the pandemic. A phantom bird for attention, a way of controlling the tiny slice of world that existed outside our window. When I saw it for the first time, its iridescent blue tail catching the late spring sunlight, I screamed. He was right.

Credit…Dan Sinker

The pandemic required full days of work to become half days, our time now split down the middle between work and child care. We began drawing birds, my son and I, making a poster a week, one bird a day. He and I drew in the mornings, and he would study the birds with his mother in the afternoons. The time split was inconvenient, but how long could it possibly last, we asked.

Spring turned into summer and we were still inside. That one feeder became two and then three. A suction-cup feeder on the window. A thistle feeder on the fence. When the 5-year-old and I were kicking a soccer ball in our tiny mud patch of a yard and a hummingbird flew overhead, that was the next feeder we hung.

Remote school ended for our teenage son, and summer break meant more of the same. We were forever indoors, but the world was alive in our tiny yard that was more weeds and dirt than grass.

I bought a pole that could hold six feeders at a time. We’ve only gotten drive-through twice in the last eight months, but kept our fly-up fully stocked at all times. Two kinds of suet. A feeder built for woodpeckers. One that could hold whole peanuts for the blue jays; it became a prize the neighborhood squirrels dedicated their lives to claim. A second hummingbird feeder went up after we read they were highly territorial.

The five-year-old got a children’s guide to birds for his birthday, a birthday celebrated inside. He spent hours poring over it, teaching himself to read by sheer desire, calling out for help with words that grew longer and more complex as the weeks wore on. He memorized page after page.

The posters we draw line the walls of our dining room now — 25 at this point, one a week, the number always increasing. His tiny hand was unsure at first, lines and lettering halting and hesitant, but as weeks became months, he’s grown more confident and ambitious. Backyard birds. Sea birds. Exotics, Crayola bright. They reach the ceiling. We’re running out of space.

A new school year started and we were still inside. The teenager retreated to high school in his bedroom while we crammed a tiny desk into the corner of our dining room. Zoom kindergarten unfolded on a tablet screen, birds swarming the feeders just outside. For show and tell the 5-year-old flipped the camera and let the other kids see the birds. Zoom school isn’t all bad.

School’s start gave way to fall, leaves glowing in yellows and reds. We prepare for the unknowns of the “dark winter” ahead, holding on to fall like a rope above a pit. Cases are up everywhere, over a million in just a week. The numbers — the numbers are people, I remind myself when I check them every day — seem impossible, yet experts warn they’ll grow even larger when winter comes.

Things are changing, rapidly. We stay inside and look out.

The feeders are changing too. Migratory birds visit for stopovers unexpectedly, gone as quickly as they come. Woodpeckers, once a novelty, are now regulars; their usual supply of insects have disappeared with the onset of cold. The red-bellied woodpecker, whose head sports a shocking red stripe and whose wings are an op-art dream of black-and-white polka dots, now regularly gets in fights with the little trash birds, throwing his sharp beak in their direction when they swarm too close.

We knock ice off the bird bath — just a plastic tray on an upside-down flower pot — most mornings now. I make a mental note to research warmers. It’s been 255 days since the boys were last in school. It was a cold day that last day, and it’s cold days again now. Whole seasons inside.

“That’s a dark-eyed junco” the 5-year-old announced excitedly one morning a week or two ago (what’s time anymore?), pointing at a bird that, to my eyes, looked just like the trash birds we get by the hundreds. It was maybe a little darker, its beak a little lighter. Its only distinguishing mark was a little flick of a white tail I never would have noticed. He noticed.

This time I didn’t question him. I just looked it up in his bird book and there it was, exactly as he said, a dark-eyed junco. They only come in winter.

Why Handwriting Is Still Essential in the Keyboard Age

Photo

Credit Anna Parini

Do children in a keyboard world need to learn old-fashioned handwriting?

There is a tendency to dismiss handwriting as a nonessential skill, even though researchers have warned that learning to write may be the key to, well, learning to write.

And beyond the emotional connection adults may feel to the way we learned to write, there is a growing body of research on what the normally developing brain learns by forming letters on the page, in printed or manuscript format as well as in cursive. In an article this year in The Journal of Learning Disabilities, researchers looked at how oral and written language related to attention and what are called “executive function” skills (like planning) in children in grades four through nine, both with and without learning disabilities. Virginia Berninger, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Washington and the lead author on the study, told me that evidence from this and other studies suggests that “handwriting — forming letters — engages the mind, and that can help children pay attention to written language.”

Last year in an article in The Journal of Early Childhood Literacy, Laura Dinehart, an associate professor of early childhood education at Florida International University, discussed several possible associations between good handwriting and academic achievement: Children with good handwriting may get better grades because their work is more pleasant for teachers to read; children who struggle with writing may find that too much of their attention is consumed by producing the letters, and the content suffers.

But can we actually stimulate children’s brains by helping them form letters with their hands? In a population of low-income children, Dr. Dinehart said, the ones who had good early fine-motor writing skills in prekindergarten did better later on in school. She called for more research on handwriting in the preschool years, and on ways to help young children develop the skills they need for “a complex task” that requires the coordination of cognitive, motor and neuromuscular processes.

“This myth that handwriting is just a motor skill is just plain wrong,” Dr. Berninger said. “We use motor parts of our brain, motor planning, motor control, but what’s very critical is a region of our brain where the visual and language come together, the fusiform gyrus, where visual stimuli actually become letters and written words.” You have to see letters in “the mind’s eye” in order to produce them on the page, she said. Brain imaging shows that the activation of this region is different in children who are having trouble with handwriting.

Functional brain scans of adults show a characteristic brain network that is activated when they read, and it includes areas that relate to motor processes. This suggested to scientists that the cognitive process of reading may be connected to the motor process of forming letters.

Karin James, a professor of psychological and brain sciences at Indiana University, did brain scans on children who did not yet know how to print. “Their brains don’t distinguish letters; they respond to letters the same as to a triangle,” she said.

After the children were taught to print, patterns of brain activation in response to letters showed increased activation of that reading network, including the fusiform gyrus, along with the inferior frontal gyrus and posterior parietal regions of the brain, which adults use for processing written language — even though the children were still at a very early level as writers.

“The letters they produce themselves are very messy and variable, and that’s actually good for how children learn things,” Dr. James said. “That seems to be one big benefit of handwriting.”

Handwriting experts have struggled with the question of whether cursive writing confers special skills and benefits, beyond the benefits that print writing might provide. Dr. Berninger cited a 2015 study that suggested that starting around fourth grade, cursive skills conferred advantages in both spelling and composing, perhaps because the connecting strokes helped children connect letters into words.

For typically developing young children, typing the letters doesn’t seem to generate the same brain activation. As we grow up, of course, most of us transition to keyboard writing, though like many who teach college students, I have struggled with the question of laptops in class, more because I worry about students’ attention wandering than to promote handwriting. Still, studies on note taking have suggested that “college students who are writing on a keyboard are less likely to remember and do well on the content than if writing it by hand,” Dr. Dinehart said.

Dr. Berninger said the research suggests that children need introductory training in printing, then two years of learning and practicing cursive, starting in grade three, and then some systematic attention to touch-typing.

Using a keyboard, and especially learning the positions of the letters without looking at the keys, she said, might well take advantage of the fibers that cross-communicate in the brain, since unlike with handwriting, children will use both hands to type. “What we’re advocating is teaching children to be hybrid writers,” said Dr. Berninger, “manuscript first for reading — it transfers to better word recognition — then cursive for spelling and for composing. Then, starting in late elementary school, touch-typing.”

As a pediatrician, I think this may be another case where we should be careful that the lure of the digital world doesn’t take away significant experiences that can have real impacts on children’s rapidly developing brains. Mastering handwriting, messy letters and all, is a way of making written language your own, in some profound ways.

“My overarching research focuses on how learning and interacting with the world with our hands has a really significant effect on our cognition,” Dr. James said, “on how writing by hand changes brain function and can change brain development.”

Related:

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Where Listening Is the New Lecture

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Credit iStock

Mara was one of my best students; she was reliable, dedicated and truly loved to learn. One day, at the end of seventh grade, she informed me she’d be dropping my Latin class for her eighth grade year so she could have an additional study hall, time she needed to finish her other school work and participate in extracurricular activities. I signed off on her request, but I also sensed that the explanation she gave was not the whole story. Weeks later, she asked to meet with me and, voice shaking, admitted she had dropped my class because she did not feel as if her time was being well spent because she was not learning much.

As she laid my failings bare, my mouth opened, defense at the ready. When I began to speak, however, she looked me in the eyes and thanked me for listening to her.

That’s when I shut my mouth and realized I had not been listening to her at all, not for the entire year she’d been in my classroom.

If I had been listening every day, instead of just this once, her confession would not have been news. If I’d been using strategies focused on her learning, rather than my teaching – heck, if I’d just asked, I would have known she wasn’t learning.

I write about education through the lens of my own teaching, so many of my most grievous errors are Google-able, available for public consumption for as long as the internet shall live. Horrifying on a personal level, yes, but I believe teaching mistakes laid bare are a good thing for education at large.

Anyone who has managed to stick it out in the classroom for more than a year has committed serious errors. Teachers lecture, even when evidence shows lecturing isn’t effective teaching. Teachers favor certain students over others based on race, behavior or personality, even when research reveals that supportive and positive teacher-student relationships form the foundation of learning and school engagement, especially for students at increased risk of educational failure.

Letter grades, sexist dress codes, homework, institutional racism and high-stakes summative tests have stood as America’s educational status quo for hundreds of years, but handing these artifacts down to the next generation without questioning their propriety or utility is, put bluntly, bad teaching.

I, like many other teachers, have also swung too far, too fast, in my yearning for magic, silver bullets. Because I like to poke the sacred cows lazing around my classroom, I adore reading education clickbait, articles that trumpet the exciting promise of new findings. When a study emerged in 2014 on the deleterious impact of excessive classroom decorations on kindergarten learning, for example, I was tempted to purge my classroom of my carefully curated yet distracting maps, poems and student art. Fortunately, I’ve learned to stop, take a breath and consider whether the finding at hand was simply interesting (this one was) or something tried, tested, ready to be deployed with all deliberate speed in classrooms across the country (it was not).

A willingness to embrace new methods is admirable, particularly when current ones are not working, but education is a big ship to turn around, particularly when it is moving full steam ahead in the wrong direction.

Despite American education’s failures, missteps, errors of judgment and blunders of best intentions, I remain optimistic about where we are headed, both as a profession and as a nation. No, I’m not naïve; I started teaching 18 years ago and have committed or witnessed many of these blunders firsthand. Rather, I remain optimistic because I’ve also spent three years on the road meeting teachers, school counselors, administrators and school board members, and I know how much they care about their students.

Education may seem adrift right now, what with deeply entrenched debate over national versus local control of standards, the utility and fairness of standardized assessments and the economic and social worth of teachers. But at the center of much of this conflict, we all have the same focus: the students.

I believe our shared compass bearing will help us get this ship pointed in the right direction, toward a place where learning trumps expedience, knowledge confers power and listening is the new lecture.

Jessica Lahey is an educator, writer and speaker and the author of “The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed.”


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Using Meditation to Help Close the Achievement Gap

Photo

Students meditating at Phillip and Sala Burton Academic High School in San Francisco.

Students meditating at Phillip and Sala Burton Academic High School in San Francisco.Credit

Closing the so-called achievement gap between poor inner-city children and their more affluent suburban counterparts is among the biggest challenges for education reformers. The success of some schools’ efforts suggests that meditation might significantly improve children’s school performance – and help close that gap.

In 2007, James Dierke, then the principal of the Visitacion Valley Middle School in a troubled neighborhood in San Francisco, was determined to improve both the quality of education and student behavior in his school. He adopted a system called the Quiet Time Program, developed by the David Lynch Foundation for Consciousness-Based Education and World Peace. The program, implemented in partnership with the nonprofit Center for Wellness and Achievement in Education, involved introducing two 15-minute periods of quiet into the school day. During those times students could either practice Transcendental Meditation, which is taught as part of the program, or engage in other quiet activities like silent reading.

A major factor preventing underserved children from learning is the stress they encounter on a daily basis – from factors like poverty, deprivation, lack of steady parental input, physical danger and constant fear. Research shows that chronic stress can impair healthy brain development and the ability to learn, and that Transcendental Meditation, a stress-reducing technique that involves thinking of a mantra, can reduce stress and its manifestations – for example, anxiety, high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease. Mr. Dierke wondered whether meditation might reduce students’ stress levels and help them learn.

Over the next three years, Visitacion Valley’s suspensions dropped by 79 percent, attendance rose to 98 percent, and students’ grade point averages rose each year. Of even greater interest, the increase in G.P.A. for the lowest performing demographic was double that for the overall student group.

Anecdotally, favorable feedback poured in from both students and staff members. One seventh grader at Visitacion Valley said, “I used to be really fidgety, couldn’t stay in my seat for very long. Now, after meditating, I can sit down for a whole class without standing up.” Barry O’Driscoll, the school’s director of physical education for the past 14 years, said, “In the first seven years of my tenure, the school was dominated by stress and fighting.” But in the last few years, he said, “we have had very few fights.”

One other middle school and two high schools in the Bay Area adopted the program. And a 2015 review of the program, issued by the Center for Wellness and Achievement in Education in collaboration with the San Francisco Unified School District research department, had more good news.

The results of 17 studies conducted to date in the Bay Area, varying in duration from three months to one year, showed benefits across parameters including reduced stress, increased emotional intelligence, reduced suspensions, increased attendance and increased academic performance.

Although controlled studies are difficult to perform in an academic setting, collectively the results of the Bay Area studies are encouraging. Two controlled studies have been published so far; others are in submission for publication. In one, the effects of the Quiet Time Program, conducted over half the academic year, were evaluated in public middle school students performing below proficiency level. Annual math and English scores improved in the students who meditated, while they declined in those who didn’t meditate. Given that the students in the study were performing below par at baseline, these results are promising.

The second controlled study, authored by WestEd, an independent evaluator, found that after seven months of the Quiet Time Program, ninth grade students who meditated showed a significant decrease in anxiety and a significant increase in resilience compared to nonmeditating students. In addition, meditating students reported sleeping better as well as higher levels of self-confidence and happiness.

It would be naïve to think that meditation alone could erase the effects of the many factors, like poverty, that are barriers to educational achievement. But Quiet Time is a relatively inexpensive intervention that teachers and students enjoy and which preliminary data suggest is effective.

And although this program has focused on schools in low-income areas, adolescents from middle-class and affluent families could benefit from stress reduction as well. Why shouldn’t all our students have access to meditation?

Norman E. Rosenthal is a psychiatrist and the author of “Super Mind: How to Boost Performance and Live a Richer and Happier Life Through Transcendental Meditation.”

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The New Performance Enhancer in High School Sports? Nutrition

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Jordan Burg, 18, learned to make smart food choices for sports through a nutrition program at his school.

Jordan Burg, 18, learned to make smart food choices for sports through a nutrition program at his school.Credit Jenna Schoenefeld for The New York Times

Jordan Burg, 18, who plays varsity football and baseball and runs track, never used to think about what he was eating. But after he learned at school that nutrition was as important to his athletic performance as attending practice, he changed his diet.

Before, “I figured that I worked out so hard, it didn’t matter,” he said. “I ate ice cream whenever I pleased, cheese on everything and soda every day.” Now, he said, “I find myself at the salad bar having grilled chicken salads,” and on game days “I eat chicken breast and fish, and I make sure I drink as much water as possible.” He also avoids processed foods and red meat.

Jordan, a senior at the Windward School in Los Angeles, a private co-ed school for grades 7-12, said, “I am experiencing far fewer muscle cramps as well as less muscle fatigue.”

He credits this change to Windward’s heavy focus on nutrition as part of its athletic program, something that appears to be a new trend in high schools, said Molly Wong Vega, a dietitian who provides her services to three public school districts in the greater Houston area. Long a standard part of professional and college programs, the emphasis on diet is shifting to the high school level.

“Schools are starting to bring in dietitians to discuss the importance of nutrition with young athletes to complete the circle,” Ms. Wong Vega said. “Suggesting a snack of bell peppers with hummus may be a way to help increase vitamin A and C intake and give a little zinc as well,” which she says can help with muscle and tissue repair.

Ms. Wong Vega said public school districts often have tighter budgets than private schools, making it harder to hire specialists in sports nutrition. She is not employed directly by the schools but works with their athletic trainers through the Houston Methodist System, a network of hospitals. She said it took her and another dietitian a full semester to talk to all the coaching staff members and 900 athletes at just one high school.

The Chandler Unified School District in Arizona, a public district in the suburbs of Phoenix, has three dietitians on staff. One is Wesley Delbridge, also a spokesman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, a trade group representing some 75,000 registered dietitians and other nutrition professionals.

“By hiring a dietitian, districts receive that extra skill set that can improve their meals and increase health,” said Mr. Delbridge, a registered dietitian who directs the district’s food and nutrition department. “I have been advocating for school nutrition departments and food service departments to hire dietitians for some time, and I’m happy to see more and more schools incorporate nutrition not only into their athletic programs but into its core programs.”

Mr. Delbridge and his team developed “peak performance packs,” boxes of food that students in the district’s high schools can buy in the cafeteria for $5. There are three choices: endurance, muscle building and rapid recovery packs, each aimed at giving student athletes solid nutritional choices for their sport.

The endurance pack, for example — for sports like soccer, cross country, track and wrestling – contains whole-grain pasta salad, fresh fruit, string cheese, vegetables, hummus and a beverage high in electrolytes, intended to help prevent cramping and muscle fatigue. The muscle-building pack contains foods that are high in lean protein, both plant- and animal-based, to encourage muscles to repair and build up again.

Sports nutritionists concede that getting kids to eat healthfully remains a struggle.

“We don’t say ‘don’t eat this, don’t eat that,’” said Kermit Cannon, who heads the Windward School’s program to incorporate healthy eating into its curriculum. “We emphasize that good nutrition, along with sleep and exercise, will not only benefit you as a student athlete, but those habits will benefit you for a lifetime.”

Tackling eating disorders is also often part of the nutrition programs, with some dietitians providing one-on-one sessions with students. Mr. Delbridge is sometimes asked by a coach or a counselor to talk with student athletes who have eating disorders, and their parents.

“We would discuss their current weight, exercise activity and intensity, and I would show them what the final amount of calories they need in a day to maintain that activity level,” Mr. Delbridge said. “This can sometimes shock the student, because it seems like a lot of calories. Then we discuss how to meet these needs with healthy choices.”

Roberta Anding, a sports dietitian at the Kinkaid School, a private school in Houston for pre-kindergarten to 12th grade, said both boys and girls can struggle with body image. “How we provide these young men and women the life skills to navigate food choices, a college cafeteria, see how alcohol plays a negative role in your performance, how to recover properly — that’s truly focusing in on wellness for life.”

Robert Bach, the principal of Stillwater Area High School in Minnesota, said for several years now, students have had access to individual sessions with a nutritionist to help them make smart food choices. “It’s about lifelong health so that our students can lead a healthy lifestyle they carry beyond their classes,” he said.

Sela Kay, a sophomore at the Windward School, said that learning about nutrition at school has made it easier for her to make healthier food choices.

“Even after I am done with organized sports someday, I want to continue leading this healthy lifestyle,” said Sela, 16, who plays varsity basketball and runs track. “I know now that will start with my food choices.”

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The Mindful Child

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Credit Sam Kalda

It’s long been known that meditation helps children feel calmer, but new research is helping quantify its benefits for elementary school-age children. A 2015 study found that fourth- and fifth-grade students who participated in a four-month meditation program showed improvements in executive functions like cognitive control, working memory, cognitive flexibility — and better math grades. A study published recently in the journal Mindfulness found similar improvements in mathematics in fifth graders with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. And a study of elementary school children in Korea showed that eight weeks of meditation lowered aggression, social anxiety and stress levels.

These investigations, along with a review published in March that combed the developmental psychology and cognitive neuroscience literature, illustrate how meditative practices have the potential to actually change the structure and function of the brain in ways that foster academic success.

Fundamental principles of neuroscience suggest that meditation can have its greatest impact on cognition when the brain is in its earliest stages of development.

This is because the brain develops connections in prefrontal circuits at its fastest rate in childhood. It is this extra plasticity that creates the potential for meditation to have greater impact on executive functioning in children. Although meditation may benefit adults more in terms of stress reduction or physical rejuvenation, its lasting effects on things like sustained attention and cognitive control are significant but ultimately less robust.

clinical study published in 2011 in The Journal of Child and Family Studies demonstrates this concept superbly. The research design allowed adults and children to be compared directly since they were enrolled in the same mindfulness meditation program and assessed identically. Children between 8 and 12 who had A.D.H.D. diagnoses, along with parents, were enrolled in an eight-week mindfulness-training program. The results showed that mindfulness meditation significantly improved attention and impulse control in both groups, but the improvements were considerably more robust in the children.

Outside of the lab, many parents report on the benefits of early meditation. Heather Maura of Vienna, Va., who was trained in transcendental meditation, leads her 9-year-old daughter Daisy through various visualization techniques and focused breathing exercises three nights a week, and says her daughter has become noticeably better at self-regulating her emotions, a sign of improved cognitive control. “When Daisy is upset, she will sit herself down and concentrate on her breathing until she is refocused,” Ms. Maura said.

Amanda Simmons, a mother who runs her own meditation studio in Los Angeles, has seen similar improvements in her 11-year-old son, Jacob, who is on the autism spectrum. Jacob also has A.D.H.D. and bipolar disorder, but Ms. Simmons said many of his symptoms have diminished since he began daily meditation and mantra chants six months ago. “The meditation seems to act like a ‘hard reboot’ for his brain, almost instantly resolving mood swings or lessening anger,” Ms. Simmons said. She believes it has enabled him to take a lower dose of Risperdal, an antipsychotic drug used to treat bipolar disorder.

Whether children are on medication or not, meditation can help instill self-control and an ability to focus. Perhaps encouraging meditation and mind-body practices will come to be recognized as being as essential to smart parenting as teaching your child to work hard, eat healthfully and exercise regularly.

Learn some meditation techniques you can teach your child, read Three Ways for Children to Try Meditation at Home

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To Help Students Learn, Engage the Emotions

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Before she became a neuroscientist, Mary Helen Immordino-Yang was a seventh-grade science teacher at a school outside Boston. One year, during a period of significant racial and ethnic tension at the school, she struggled to engage her students in a unit on human evolution. After days of apathy and outright resistance to Ms. Immordino-Yang’s teaching, a student finally asked the question that altered her teaching — and her career path — forever: “Why are early hominids always shown with dark skin?”

With that question, one that connected the abstract concepts of human evolution and the very concrete, personal experiences of racial tension in the school, her students’ resistance gave way to interest. As she explained the connection between the effects of equatorial sunlight, melanin and skin color and went on to explain how evolutionary change and geography result in various human characteristics, interest blossomed into engagement, and something magical happened: Her students began to learn.

Dr. Immordino-Yang’s eyes light up as she recounts this story in her office at the Brain and Creativity Institute at the University of Southern California. Now an associate professor of education, psychology and neuroscience, she understands the reason behind her students’ shift from apathy to engagement and, finally, to deep, meaningful learning.

Her students learned because they became emotionally engaged in material that had personal relevance to them.

Emotion is essential to learning, Dr. Immordino-Yang said, and should not be underestimated or misunderstood as a trend, or as merely the “E” in “SEL,” or social-emotional learning. Emotion is where learning begins, or, as is often the case, where it ends. Put simply, “It is literally neurobiologically impossible to think deeply about things that you don’t care about,” she said.

This rule holds true even across subjects and disciplines, Dr. Immordino-Yang writes in her book, “Emotions, Learning, and the Brain.” “Even in academic subjects that are traditionally considered unemotional, such as physics, engineering or math, deep understanding depends on making emotional connections between concepts.”

As a teacher, I know what an emotionally engaged student looks like on the outside, but Dr. Immordino-Yang showed me what that student looks like on the inside using a functional M.R.I., a scanner that reveals brain function in real time.

“When students are emotionally engaged,” she said, “we see activations all around the cortex, in regions involved in cognition, memory and meaning-making, and even all the way down into the brain stem.”

As she went on to explain why emotion is vital to high-quality learning, Ms. Immordino-Yang’s cheeks flushed pink, her eyes brightened, and her hands became animated and expressive. While she’d provided me with pages of quotes, studies and images meant to illustrate all she wanted to teach me during those two hours in her office, her enthusiasm for the topic served as the most powerful exhibit.

Great teachers understand that the best, most durable learning happens when content sparks interest, when it is relevant to a child’s life, and when the students form an emotional bond with either the subject at hand or the teacher in front of them. Meaningful learning happens when teachers are able to create an emotional connection to what might otherwise remain abstract concepts, ideas or skills.

Creating this emotional connection might sound like a daunting task, but research has shown that the investment reaps huge dividends in the form of increased learning and better grades. When teachers take the time to learn about their students’ likes, dislikes and personal interests, whether it’s racial issues brewing at their school, their after-school job, or their dreams and goals, learning improves.

I experienced this a few years ago, with a parent who asked me how to get her daughter interested in school. The girl dreamed of becoming a dairy farmer like her father and grandfather, and felt that her classes were irrelevant.

And yet, given a few moments to think and some creativity, we both realized that dairy farming is a perfect laboratory for everything from biology to math, chemistry to geometry, history to government; all of these subjects are relevant and important in the life of a dairy farmer. When the catalog for I.V.F.-ready bull semen arrives in the mail, she’ll need to know about dominant and recessive genetic traits. She’ll need to understand soil chemistry, microbiology, botany, the geometry of herd rotation as it relates to land use, and the political and financial realities of keeping dairy farming viable as an industry.

The emotional connection that can result when teachers make learning personally relevant to students is what differentiates superficial, rote, topical assimilation of material from a superlative education marked by deep mastery and durable learning. While there are no silver bullets in education, emotional engagement and personal relevance is the tool that has the potential to improve the educational experience of every child, in every school in America.


Jessica Lahey is an educator, writer and speaker and the author of “The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed.”

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Raising a Child With Grit Can Mean Letting Her Quit

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Angela Duckworth

Angela DuckworthCredit

The rule at the “grit” expert Angela Duckworth’s house? You can quit. But you can’t quit on a hard day.

Few parents who pick up Angela Duckworth’s book “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance,” will be thinking about raising a quitter.

But Dr. Duckworth, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, has some unexpected advice.

“Quitting is essential, especially when you’re young,” said Dr. Duckworth, who was named a MacArthur “genius” in 2013 for her development of the concept of “grit”— the combination of determination and direction that drives some people to constantly work, improve and achieve. “It’s counterintuitive, especially for parents looking for an affirmation that discipline and hard work are what matters — but interests come first.”

Very young kids, she says, should be allowed to explore, even if that means abandoning projects and even practices.

The reason it’s sometimes all right to let a child quit, Dr. Duckworth said, is that the predecessor to developing grit is the kind of play that leads to passion. Parents shouldn’t be discouraged by those early starts and stops. “Kids don’t work hard on things they don’t care about,” she says.

As children grow older, seeing things through becomes more important.

“A child in elementary school should be able to stick with things for more than a few weeks,” she said. A middle-school-age child should be able to do a full year or season, and once a child is in high school, research suggests that spending more than a year or a single season on an activity is important. “It’s important to experience what it’s like to come back,” she said, and to see how you improve with experience and how things change as coaches or advisers change.

Still, even for an older child, there are times when quitting is the right choice. Another season of a sport comes at a cost: less time to try something new. There are also times when that urge to quit comes from frustration or fear, or even a sort of inertia. The mother of the world-record-holding sprinter Usain Bolt probably doesn’t regret pulling him away from video games to insist that he go to track practice.

So how does a parent know when to demand that a child keep going, and when to support a decision to stop?

In Dr. Duckworth’s house, there’s a rule, she said. “You can’t quit on a hard day.” You play in the rain, you return to class after a scolding from a teacher, you pick up the instrument again until that hard passage has become easy.

“Parents know what a kid doesn’t know,” Dr. Duckworth said. “For a kid, it’s irrational to keep going when they’re discouraged. Parents know that everyone feels that way.”

Dr. Duckworth is quick to note that her book is not a parenting manual. It’s an exploration of the sometimes surprising ways hard work, passion and perseverance matter more than talent, a reminder that what observers sometimes see as the overnight success of the incredibly gifted, particularly in the realm of athletics, is really the product of drive as well as ability, and a discussion of how all of us — not just children — can grow our “grit” throughout our lives.

Instilling grit in your child requires a combination of being demanding and supportive, said Dr. Duckworth. “You need to push your kids a little bit, but they also need to know that they’re supported.”

Second, parents need to “model” grit. Talk about the challenges you face now, or have faced in the past, and how you persisted. Tell family stories about the ways your clan just doesn’t quit.

And never discount the importance of fun. Children should be allowed to try the things they gravitate toward, and those sometimes don’t appear until a child has had time to explore and understand what makes him or her happy. Dr. Duckworth tells the story of a talented young swimmer explaining why he wanted to switch to rowing — he “really wanted to be outside.”

There’s a process, she said, of “learning what rings your bell.”

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Gap Year May Have Benefits Long After College

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Not every child who gets into college is ready to go. For some, taking a “gap year” — deferring admission for a year after high school graduation — may prove invaluable, helping a child thrive in college and after graduation as well. That’s among the messages in Jeffrey J. Selingo’s newest book, “There Is Life After College: What Parents and Students Should Know About Navigating School to Prepare for the Jobs of Tomorrow.”

Many colleges now endorse the gap year, including Harvard, which “encourages admitted students to defer enrollment for one year to travel, pursue a special project or activity, work or spend time in another meaningful way.” Students who take time off tend to do better academically and are more likely to be satisfied with their choices after graduation, and we’ve written about how students who take time off may be able to make better choices about things like alcohol and sex and have a better understanding of what they want from college. As Lisa Damour, who writes a column on adolescents for Well Family, puts it, “teenage years are like dog years: a year of maturation at age 18 is worth at least seven in later life.”

But parents often remain dubious about the gap year, worried that their student, once off education’s main highway, will never attend college at all. High school guidance counselors, who may be judged by the number of seniors who attend college rather than the number who graduate, don’t always support the idea, either. And funding a gap year can feel like a barrier for many families — some programs can cost the equivalent of a year’s tuition. Those that don’t can be as challenging to get into as college itself. City Year, for example, which receives funding from AmeriCorps and which pays students to tutor in schools around the country, selects 2,700 students from among 13,000 applicants.

Mr. Selingo, a professor at the University of Arizona and a former top editor at the Chronicle of Higher Education, says parents should let go of their fears. In his book, he explores what happens to our children after they graduate from college – and why it doesn’t look much like the journey we ourselves took a generation or so ago. A lot has changed, he says, and those changes make a gap year more valuable than ever.

“It used to be that if you could get into college and graduate, you were essentially golden,” Mr. Selingo said. Once a child was admitted to college, “parents could breathe a giant sigh of relief and essentially say, as long as you graduate, you’re O.K.”

That’s no longer true, he says. “College has changed. Recruiting has changed. The economy has changed.” Some students may sprint straight toward traditional success, while others wander along the way or appear to straggle behind. For parents of adult children in those last groups, helping them to find the time and space to mature into the life they want is critical. A gap year is one of the many options he describes for helping students form their own understanding of why they’re going to college, and what they want once they get there.

“We shouldn’t rush this transition,” Mr. Selingo said. “We are rushing too many kids off to college who aren’t ready or don’t know why they’re there.”

It’s important, Mr. Selingo noted, that the gap year itself be meaningful. “Students who delay college to work odd jobs for a while to try to ‘find themselves’ don’t do as well as everyone else when they get to college,” he writes. “They get lower grades, and there’s a greater chance they will drop out.” A gap year needs to provide either “meaningful work experience, academic preparation for college, or travel that opens up the horizon to the rest of the world.” It’s also important that a student has a plan for closing the gap — Mr. Selingo, like many others, recommends that students apply for and accept a place in college before starting a gap year.

To increase their investment in the gap year experience, some students can find meaningful work experience, perhaps working as a nanny or as a language instructor overseas. Others might work those odd jobs with the goal of funding, or partially funding, a paid gap experience. Even if parents end up footing all or most of the bill, though, Mr. Selingo argues that it’s worth it. At most public universities, fewer than 20 percent of students graduate in four years. Many students take six years to finish a degree, or never finish at all. An investment in a gap year, he writes, “might be money saved later if students are more directed when they eventually go to college.”

Above all, parents and students should think of a gap year not as a break in an education, but as a part of it. “We need to remember that lifelong education is no longer rhetoric, but reality,” said Mr. Selingo. “We still think of an education as this thing you get, at this one place, once in your life,” he said. “That’s not the way it works anymore.”

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School Athletes Often Lack Adequate Protection

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Credit Paul Rogers

With all the attention on national rules to prevent and properly treat injuries to professional and college athletes, it may surprise you to learn that there are no nationwide guidelines to protect high school athletes from crippling or fatal injuries.

Instead, it is up to individual states and the schools within them to adopt policies and practices that help to assure the safety of children who play organized school or league sports. But most states and schools have yet to enact needed safety measures, according to data from the National Athletic Trainers’ Association.

“Each state has its own high school athletic association, and each policy has to be individually approved,” said Douglas Casa, an athletic trainer and chief executive of the University of Connecticut’s Korey Stringer Institute, named for the former National Football League player who died from complications related to heatstroke in 2001.

“It’s a burdensome, grueling process,” Dr. Casa said, that he and others hope will yield to the efforts of a new program, the Collaborative Solutions for Safety in Sport created by the athletic trainers’ association and theAmerican Medical Society for Sports Medicine.

The program held its second meeting last month, attended by two high school representatives from each state, to provide them with road maps to establish safety rules and policies or laws for high school athletics.

Last year alone, about 50 high school athletes died, according to the association, and thousands suffered long-term complications from sports-related injuries, most of which could have been avoided had well-established safety practices been in place and observed.

The leading causes of sports-related deaths among high school students are sudden cardiac arrest, head and neck injuries, and exertion-induced heatstroke or sickling, which occurs in athletes who carry the sickle cell trait. Fatalities occur primarily because most schools lack four critical ingredients to assure sports safety: emergency action plans, policies for proper conditioning and safe exercise in high heat and humidity, the presence of trained health professionals at all practices and games, and immediate availability of automated external defibrillators, or A.E.D.s, to reset a stilled or erratically beating heart.

In July 2004, Laura Friend of Fort Worth, lost her 12-year-old daughter Sarah during a junior lifeguarding class because nobody recognized the child was in cardiac arrest and no one initiated CPR or used the A.E.D. on the premises. Not until after Sarah died was it known that she had been born with an enlarged heart.

Ms. Friend, who now coordinates a Texas cardiac emergency project, created a nonprofit foundation in her daughter’s memory that has donated 59 A.E.D.s and provided CPR and A.E.D. training for hundreds of youth and adults in Texas.

However, despite a 2007 law requiring an A.E.D. in every school in Texas, “many are locked up in an office and not accessible, or only the school nurse knows how to use it,” Ms. Friend said.

Knowing that sudden cardiac arrest is by far the leading cause of death among student- athletes, Dr. Casa owns an A.E.D. and takes it to every practice and game of soccer, lacrosse and swimming involving his three school-age children.

The Mallon family of Del Mar, Calif., knows all too well the importance of having a medically trained professional on hand during practices and games. Tommy Mallon owes his life and well-being to an athletic trainer and a quick-thinking teammate who refused to help him up when he landed hard after colliding with another lacrosse player when he was 17. Instead, a trainer was summoned who, noticing subtle neurological signs that suggested a catastrophic, potentially fatal injury, called immediately for an ambulance.

Tommy, 23, now a global risk analyst in Austin, Tex., had sustained a fractured vertebra in his neck and torn artery to the brain. Had he been moved incorrectly, he could have died or been paralyzed.

In the years since, Tommy’s mother, Beth Mallon, has been a relentless advocate for teaching athletes how to recognize basic signs and symptoms of trouble on the field or court. Some 5,000 students have already been through the program she developed, Athletes Saving Athletes, taught by athletic trainers.

“In just two hours, the kids learn all they need to know: This could be serious, when and how to get help,” Ms. Mallon said. “We’ve had three success stories so far: one involving a heatstroke, one with cardiac arrest and a third with a neck injury and concussion.”

“High schools spend tons of money on referees, but almost nothing on safety,” she said. “I’d like to see every high school in the country adopt a sports safety curriculum. You never think a catastrophic injury will happen to your kid, but if it does, you’d be so grateful that someone is there who knows what to do.”

Dr. Jonathan Drezner, director of the Center for Sports Cardiology at the University of Washington, outlined the key practices the collaborative project is trying to get every high school that sponsors athletic activities to adopt:

■ An athletic trainer at every practice and game;

■ An emergency action plan to respond appropriately to an athlete in distress;

■ A publicly accessible A.E.D. and school-based program in its use;

■ Climatization policies to prevent heat injury and heatstroke.

Although having a medically trained person readily available can be too costly for many schools, an A.E.D. costs only about $1,000 and can be used to save anyone — coaches, refs and spectators as well as athletes.

“I can’t believe we don’t have universal access to A.E.D.s in schools; they should be like fire extinguishers,” Dr. Drezner said. “There are 7.5 million high school athletes in this country. During the academic school year 2014-2015, there were 55 cases of cardiac arrest among them, and 57 percent died.”

Parents whose children want to play school sports often focus more on uniforms than on measures to protect them from serious or fatal injuries. Experts say that a pre-participation medical exam is critical and should include an EKG if there is any family history of heart trouble.

Coaches should know CPR, the location and use of an A.E.D., the signs of a possible concussion, and when to keep a player on the sidelines. Coaches should also monitor climate conditions and know when to postpone or suspend a practice or competitive event to avoid heat injuries. During hot weather and high humidity, a cooling tub should always be available. If school money is tight, parents might hold a fund-raiser to assure that an athletic trainer or sports medicine doctor attends every practice and game.

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3 Things School Counselors Want You to Know About Their Jobs

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Credit Joyce Dopkeen/The New York Times

Over the years, this column has offered up “3 Things Students Wish Teachers Knew,” “3 Things Parents Wish Teachers Knew,” and “5 Things Teachers Wish Parents Knew.” Recently, it was called to my attention that I have never written about what school counselors might like readers to know about their profession.

I’ve spent a great deal of time this year meeting and talking with school counselors, and I can attest that they have a lot of wisdom to share about how to keep students healthy, happy and successful.

School counselors manage the intersection of multiple, disparate priorities: students’ academic performance and their mental health, parents’ dreams for their kids and teachers’ requirements for their students, decisions about the present and plans for the future. As challenging as this task is, daily life in this intersection is also increasingly demanding. According to the recommendation of the American School Counselor Association, the student-to-counselor ratio should go no higher than 250 to 1. According to the latest data, however, all but three states, New Hampshire, Vermont and Wyoming, exceed the recommended ratio. Nationally, the average student-to-school-counselor ratio is 491 to 1, but the ratio hits a high of 941 to 1 in Arizona.

The view from this intersection may be chaotic and crowded, but because counselors are concerned with the mental, emotional and physical health of students, it also affords counselors a glimpse of the whole child, one that teachers, parents and administrators can’t often discern from their more limited viewpoints. I asked three of these professionals to describe their work and share their unique perspective on what students need in order to succeed.

First, Phyllis Fagell, a licensed clinical professional counselor and school counselor in Bethesda, Md., told me: Don’t call them “guidance counselors.” The proper title is “school counselor,” she explained in an email. “School counselors chafe at the outdated term ‘guidance counselor,’ a relic from the past that no longer reflects our role,” she wrote. The profession was vocationally oriented and counselors had inconsistent educational backgrounds and levels of certification until the Association of School Counselors of America published “The ASCA National Model: A Foundation for School Counseling Programs” in 2003 in an effort to standardize the field.

“Today’s school counselors have master’s degrees. We use evidence-based practices and maintain data to ensure accountability; we work with teachers, parents and other community members to support our students,” wrote Ms. Fagell.

School counselors manage many roles, but the one role they do not own is that of disciplinarian. Students need to be able to confide in counselors without worry that they will be punished, Ms. Fagell explained. “The divide between administration and counseling is incredibly important to understand and maintain if students are going to trust us to act in their best interests.”

Those best interests, Brian Turcotte, a social worker and school counselor in Barrington, Ill., wrote in an email, are not always the same as the goals parents have for their children. When I asked Mr. Turcotte for his best school counselor advice to parents, he wrote,

We cannot make our kids live the life we wish we had lived. Parents’ aspirations and dreams for their children may not be the aspirations or dreams children have for themselves. It’s fine to try to encourage or inspire children to consider a future beyond what they see for themselves, but ultimately, every person needs to be in charge of his or her own life.

Kelly Wickham Hurst, counselor at Lincoln Magnet School in Springfield, Ill., said in a phone interview that she believes parents and teachers need to do a little less telling, a lot more listening and forgive children when they mess up.

Ms. Wickham Hurst said she left classroom teaching to become a school counselor because she felt she had an opportunity to multiply her influence for her students. She is black and said she thought she had particular impact among minority students. “Often, when a kid arrives in my office sad or angry about how he is being treated, my job is to give him back his humanity. I tell him that what he is feeling is normal,” and that he may be being treated differently than his white classmates. “I listen, help him manage his emotions and teach him how to move through the world we live in today, even when it’s not fair.”

“We have to forgive children when they get in trouble,” she added. “The most powerful relationships I have with kids develop when I forgive them, and validate their feelings. Kids need the respect and the space to be human.”

Finally, Ms. Fagell emphasized the role school counselors play in teaching “soft skills,” like negotiation, compromise and planning. “School counselors care deeply about educating children to be whole, happy people with the social-emotional skills needed to navigate life. It’s not enough to be good at math or history. Students need to be problem solvers and innovators. They need to be able to work in teams, to manage change, to take risks and to lead.”

Children learn these skills best when teachers, counselors and parents work cooperatively. Ms. Fagell concluded her email to me with this very sentiment. “When parents openly share their child’s stories and struggles, counselors can be effective advocates, helping build teachers’ empathy and desire to engage in problem solving with the student and her family.”

School counselors may be overburdened and misunderstood, but for most, there’s nowhere else they’d rather be.

“These are my people, my tribe,” Ms. Wickham Hurst said. “I get to work in the magic that is middle school.”


Jessica Lahey is an educator, writer and speaker and the author of “The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed.”

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‘Impossible’ Homework Assignment? Let Your Child Do It

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I really didn’t think my two fourth graders could complete their homework assignment on their own: Prepare a five-minute-long speech from a biography, to be delivered, not read, from notes on index cards, in costume and in character and with at least one prop. An impossible task for a 10-year-old, I thought, as I braced for the battle that would surely be involved in dragging them both through the project.

But life intervened. I had to travel for work and take care of issues involving their older brother and sister. My husband was tied up as well. We offered a little redirection to one child early on, a little last-minute glue-gun assistance to the other, and a whole lot of soothing and apologies throughout to two children who didn’t think they could do it on their own, either.

But we were all wrong. They did fine.

“I hear this time and time again from parents,” said Julie Lythcott-Haims, a former dean of freshmen at Stanford University and the author of “How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success.” “It’s daring to step back and actually understand what your kids can do without your being present,” she said, especially when the children are clamoring for you to step in instead.

My soothing messages were fine, she said, but my apologies for being unavailable were unnecessary. “Take an interest,” she said, when they ask for help. “You can help them interpret instructions, you can help them procure materials, but when they’re turning to you and saying, ‘I can’t, I don’t know,’ you have to say, ‘Yes you can. This is the homework assigned, your teacher thinks you can do it, and I do too.’”

“You’re looking for evidence that while it’s out of their comfort zone, it’s not completely out of their capacity zone,” said Madeline Levine, a clinical psychologist and the author, most recently, of “Teach Your Children Well: Parenting for Authentic Success.” If you, as a parent, catch yourself classifying an assignment as impossible rather than challenging, and getting ready to don your superhero cape and leap in, “break it down into chunks,” Dr. Levine said.

Has the child done anything like this before? A child who can read and write reasonably successfully, she said, is probably ready for the next step of a book report; a child who has written book reports, as mine have, is probably ready to add the speaking component.

“It does mean tolerating not only your own anxiety, but your kid’s anxiety,” she said. Putting all of those skills together was just enough outside of what she called my children’s “safe zone” to make us all nervous, but it was exactly that challenge that their fourth-grade teacher felt they were ready to meet.

It would have been so easy, so justifiable, to involve myself more, and under different circumstances, I would have. After my unintentional hands-off approach, I am questioning my own judgment on when my help is really necessary, and when it’s only in the service of smoothing a path that should stay a little rough.

I still have no idea what facts my youngest son chose to convey about the life of Theodor Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss, although I do know that I could not personally read his illegible notecards. My daughter presented her final speech on Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to graduate from medical school, to me when I came home late the night before it was due. Had I helped, the report would have been more about Dr. Blackwell and less about Ginger and Blackie, the horses she had during her childhood. (I wisely refrained from suggesting changes at that point.)

It didn’t seem to matter. Their teacher didn’t want the best oral book reports. She wanted their best oral book reports. Neither child got a perfect score, but both came home feeling mostly successful — and knowing that they had no one to thank for that success but themselves.

The challenge, said Ms. Lythcott-Haims, is to trust that our children are both capable and motivated. “We can be so beautifully surprised at how our kids step in, step forward, and really claim that agency and responsibility in their own lives,” she said.

And if they don’t? “We act as if it’s all make or break for their future, and we need to be involved, to make sure,” she said. “What’s the worst thing that can happen if you don’t intervene?”

Let the teacher be the teacher, she said. Let the student be the student. And let the learning happen. You’ve already been through fourth grade.

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Is it Really A.D.H.D. or Just Immaturity?

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New research shows that the youngest students in a classroom are more likely to be given a diagnosis of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder than the oldest. The findings raise questions about how we regard those wiggly children who just can’t seem to sit still – and who also happen to be the youngest in their class.

Researchers in Taiwan looked at data from 378,881 children ages 4 to 17 and found that students born in August, the cut-off month for school entry in that country, were more likely to be given diagnoses of A.D.H.D. than students born in September. The children born in September would have missed the previous year’s cut-off date for school entry, and thus had nearly a full extra year to mature before entering school. The findings were published Thursday in The Journal of Pediatrics.

While few dispute that A.D.H.D. is a legitimate disability that can impede a child’s personal and school success and that treatment can be effective, “our findings emphasize the importance of considering the age of a child within a grade when diagnosing A.D.H.D. and prescribing medication for treating A.D.H.D.,” the authors concluded. Dr. Mu-Hong Chen, a member of the department of psychiatry at Taipei Veterans General Hospital in Taiwan and the lead author of the study, hopes that a better understanding of the data linking relative age at school entry to an A.D.H.D. diagnosis will encourage parents, teachers and clinicians to give the youngest children in a grade enough time and help to allow them to prove their ability.

Other research has shown similar results. An earlier study in the United States, for example, found that roughly 8.4 percent of children born in the month before their state’s cutoff date for kindergarten eligibility are given A.D.H.D. diagnoses, compared to 5.1 percent of children born in the month immediately afterward.

So how should we interpret data showing different rates of A.D.H.D. diagnosis among populations of children who are similar in everything other than relative age at school entry? Cautiously, says Michael Manos, the head of Cleveland Clinic Children’s A.D.H.D. Center for Evaluation and Treatment.

“The kind of attention that you have to use in school is the kind of attention that’s difficult for a person with A.D.H.D.,” so attention deficits are more readily recognized in a classroom situation, he said. “If the diagnoses are performed accurately, then some kids are getting noticed sooner than other kids,” he said. If younger children with A.D.H.D. are starting treatment earlier because they’re starting school earlier, then that’s a good thing.

But that presumes the diagnosis is an accurate one. “When you take people who are in a 15-minute pediatric primary care physician’s office visit, and the mother describes hyperactivity and the physician automatically prescribes medication, that’s a problem,” Dr. Manos said. Many parents who describe concerns about children’s behavior “aren’t describing developmentally inappropriate behavior,” he said. “They’re describing behavior that does not meet certain expectations,” and that can be the issue in classroom settings as well, where some students are older than others.

“I think the link between age at school entry and A.D.H.D. diagnoses are not really about being young or ‘not ready,’” said Daphna Bassok, an assistant professor at the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education who has studied kindergarten readiness, by email. “Instead, I think they are about a child’s relative age. “

“In early childhood classrooms, where a month or two age difference can make a big difference,” she continued, “ teachers perceive the youngest children in the class as having more attention struggles, and behavioral struggles, than the older children, irrespective of the child’s actual age.” When those teachers flag those struggles, the path to a diagnosis is paved, but the diagnosis itself still depends on the expertise of the clinician.

Stephen Hinshaw, co-author of “A.D.H.D: What Everyone Needs to Know,” said that early recognition of attention deficits “could be an opportunity for early intervention for all kindergartners, as our society struggles to balance achievement gaps, ever earlier and stronger achievement expectations, and high student-teacher ratios in Transitional K programs, as well as for evidence-based intervention for 4-year-olds with bona fide A.D.H.D.”

“On the other hand, if this is the ticket for overzealous labeling of kids, mainly boys, who are simply needing more time to mature, that’s not what we need,” Dr. Hinshaw said.